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JunkEmail Education Project


(updated August 2003) I get about 100 pieces of junkmail per day. They mostly range in size from 50K to 200K each. This is not only 'spam' but also a lot of 'junk mail'. These last come mostly from newbee clueless artists who I have never heard of and who are promoting exhibitions I do not want to attend by sending large images I do not want to see.

We can expect other people to make mistakes -- and we will generally overlook them. I have silently passed over stupid websites, have ignored [dumb e-mails], and ignore 'vacation' notices sent repeatedly to a listserv. But it serves us not to let other people foolishly imitate spammers as a means of self promotion, when, in addition to being aggravating and costly, this behaviour is based on ignorance.

Thus I mean to educate those who send me this garbage, without getting personal about it or needing to cuss and shout. It looks like my Junkmail Daemon's automatic reply which offers a brief explanation of why an e-mail was deleted might serve such didactic purposes without the embarrassment of having to be personally involved, and especially since I am quite willing to delete this crap on receipt anyway, and have never regretted doing so in three years of operation, even though almost everyone I know who installs junkmail filters saves a copy -- for what? In case it wasn't junkmail?

I think this last is especially lame. It does nothing to discourage spamming on the internet. And it doesn't take a stand. So my plan was: take a stand, and delete on receipt anything that smells of spam, or more properly, junkmail. What I will unquestionably accept is anything both (1) under a certain size, and (2) directly addressed to me, and, since Fall of 2003, (3) marked as less than level 4 by Spam Assassin.

Everything else gets treated as junkmail, except for some 'From' labels which are filtered out. This last is a sort of limited whitelist -- and is simply a list of name entries, which is read by the procmail program as, "but do not send nasty note if from {name}".

If not part of the whitelist, the body of the e-mail is deleted, and what is sent back are a few lines as follows:

   Email not accepted. We do not accept unaddressed email, or
   HTML email, or multipart email. This note is automatically
   returned by a script. We do not accept Press Releases, and
   Exhibition Announcements, or other unsolicited spam.
   If this was not your intention, request directions.

I used to include size information (the actual size of the e-mail), but most people then make a desparate effort to reduce the size of their HTML e-mail -- which doesn't help at all.

I initially included size information because most people do not understand that image files become larger when sent as e-mail, have no clue on how many packets are required for a 20K e-mail, or how much their oversized e-mails slows down everyone's internet traffic.

After the reply is sent, Procmail sends me a BCC copy locally, which tells me something of the effectiveness of the filter, and gives me something to gloat about (I no longer do this).

The amateur spammers are put on notice, and real spammers with fake addresses won't see anything, but so what. Rather than aggravating the spam-e-mail condition by returning the body in full, I delete the 200K e-mail and send only a short reply as an educational guerilla-art project. Well - procmail does.

I know spammers will not be notified, but that is not the cause here. I am on a campaign to educate all the clueless newbees. What I see in my INBOX are the crudest attempts at self promotion, put together by rank amateurs. Who, except a complete idiot, would conceivably send a 20 megabyte e-mail to a complete stranger to promote an exhibition? It is not just the preservation of bandwidth, it is the preservation of sanity.

Timo Salmi (at uwasa.fi) and Nancy McGough (at ii.com) send their received spam e-mail back. It is like taking all your junk snail-mail, ripping it up, and stuffing it into the supplied return envelopes. One of my kids used to do that, so have I. It is a backlash to the aggravation you have been experiencing.

But it does little good. I also tried writing letters, but the envelopes are opened by people who didn't finish grade school. You can understand why people jump at an opportunity to denounce and boycott some firm at the slightest sign of impropriety.. it has as much to do with the pent up anger at the 'perfectly legal' intrusive corporate advertising campaigns as with matters of slave wages or pollution.

It is also perfectly legal to do what the Enron muckymucks did, for only the 'corporation' is liable, not the officers. But do I just stand by and let otherwise normal (albeit dimwitted) people start acting in imitation of aggressive corporations?

No. Let me express my dismay at their uncivilized and improper behavior. I'm gonna send them return e-mails - but I am not gonna send the text back, for that just doubles the spam. I am going to send a short notice (perhaps too terse and inexplicable for the nitwits), which carries an attached readable attitude of disgust: their text has been deleted, spat out, and it says so.

Maybe you should see this as an art project with a clear didactic purpose. Or understand this as a critique of stupidity, of e-mail, and by extension a critique of the commerce which is the model. Procmail also is put to a purpose different from the usual -- not for digest splitting, or to silently eliminate incoming e-mail, but as a loud and immediate response to junkmail, expressing disagreement and impatience with such behavior, and dismissing it by using an 'automatic' process to make the determination and send the response.

A Little History

The nasty note used to read..

	procmail automatic reply:
	E-mail refused; size exceeds limit of 16K.
		Your file was so big;
		It stood so tall.
		But now it is gone.

This version went 'on-line' in April 2001. The size limits were adjusted frequently as people complained to me about it. I would raise it for some reason, and then I would immediately receive some piece of junkmail which came in under the wire. I finally decided not to list the size limits. The complaints stopped.

I adjusted the haiku also, but no-one ever complained about the poetry.

		Your file was so big;
		E-mail of such magnitude.
		But now it is gone.

I finally gave in to outside pressure, and lifted the filters in the fall of 2001. I was getting too many complaint, and I was not really set up to allow others to circumvent the blocking. I just started accepting the large e-mails again.

The next day a 20,000,000 byte e-mail arrived, BCC addressed, from someone I did not know, for an exhibit in NYC. That took 75 minutes, 45 seconds to download to my computer. The FCC limits 56k modems to 53kbs (kilobits per second) (a byte requires 10 bits to transmit), but most people get connections at at much lower speeds. I generally connect at 44kbs.

The complete visual content of the Prado must have been included. I was fuming again. After all, I had to pay the phone bill, not him. I dug into procmail a little deeper.

I added negated conditions to allow e-mail from certain addresses to pass, I added anti-looping conditions, and added direct filing of some e-mail. A return address of

            Procmail Daemon <errors at domain.zone>
was added where I owned the domain name. And in a fit of perversity I dropped the size limits to 8K. I added a statement to also exclude BCC e-mail, that is, e-mail not directly addressed to me or to legitimate aliases, and at some account locations also refused all CC mail. I started to rewrite web pages to have a consistant e-mail page link, and removed all machine readable e-mail addresses (mailto: protocols) from 1500 web pages.

Today the actual condition checks are very simple, and I don't really expect them to change much. Accepted e-mail has to meet the test of being addressed to me explicitly (not BCC or CC), and being under the size limit. At some locations I also refuse all e-mail in HTML format, with attachments, and using multipart.

Multipart is Microsoft's way of ensuring delivery of their HTML formatted e-mails (for years many people would simple delete HTML e-mail on receipt). Multipart e-mail includes two messages, one in HTML format and another as a plain text version. Makes them bigger yet! [note, November 2003: Microsoft is now defaulting to multipart/mixed]

All the rest will get the warning message, except for a series of conditions which test certain headers to let certain friends or topics pass through unmolested. Very simple.

Explicit as the return message is, many people still think that the return message is some sort of bounce. I hear, "My e-mail to you bounced." This level of stupidity (or impatience) is amazing.

A few have flown off the handle. Imagine that, getting irate when an unexpected, unasked for, and unwanted e-mail gets refused! These people don't know how irate I get at receiving their barf bags.

With the nasty-message response in place, people have stopped sending me gigantic files, and I hope soon they will also stop sending me BCC e-mail. A few galleries who send images for posting to a website use a dedicted account name for their large files.

The procmail scripts are spread over three remote and two local accounts. Other conditions have been added: copies of the junkmail refusals are filed directly; bounced e-mails (from a listserv) have their e-mail addresses extracted and written as files with a date. A number of special cases had to be introduced: separating out mail from off-line execution of Perl scripts, notifications from crontab actions, other automated shell script, and auto-generated digests.

And still a few things get through for one reason or another; mostly because they are small and are directly addressed to me or some aliased name. Since the Spring of 2003 many spammers have learned to reduce the size of their e-mail, and often spam is marked as "text" when in fact it is not (it is time to start refusing e-mail which include HTML tags in the body).

For the small e-mails which fall through the filters, I use a local .junkrc file, and pipe the e-mail to a separate procmail script directly from Pine. The nasty note from that script is scary, and I have had a few complaints. It reads,

		Your address has been flagged as a source
		of junk e-mail and unsolicited messages.

Probably sounds like the web-cops are taking note.

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