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Frontier justice won't stop the spam

Spam makes sense.

Sure, most of it reads like filthy gibberish. But the authors of this dreck are not semi-literate perverts. They're cool, rational business folk who have found a sleazy but effective way to make a buck.

Surely, executives at the Dutch Internet company Lycos Europe are just as rational. That's why their recent campaign against spam must be regarded as a publicity stunt, and a successful one. For a few days, the computer press was full of stories about Lycos Europe's bid to block out billions of unwanted messages, with the help of thousands of Internet users and their computers.

Audacious, yes, and even appealing in a spiteful way. But hardly practical, and probably even illegal. The people at Lycos Europe -- no relation to the American Lycos -- certainly knew this. So although their plan sputtered after a week, it's unlikely any tears are being shed.

After all, the company persuaded about 80,000 people around the world to visit their website. There, they could download a screensaver called Make Love, Not Spam. Done up in colors left over from the hippy-dippy '60s, the software kicks in when the user's computer is idle for a few minutes. But it doesn't just decorate your monitor.

Make Love Not Spam is modeled after several popular screensavers that use the idle time on networked machines to carry out serious computing tasks. We've all seen the SETI@Home screensaver that scans radio static in search of life on other worlds. An outfit called United Devices has another one that does chemical computations for medical research. It's a painless way to use a PC's spare computing power for a worthy cause.

For Lycos Europe, the cause was spam-fighting, and who can question its worth?

Last week, the Internet mail software firm Postini Inc. reported that only 12 percent of the 7 billion messages it processed in November was legitimate mail. The other 88 percent was spam, and its close cousins like phishing attacks and e-mail viruses. Spam costs consumers and businesses $20 billion worldwide, according to Basex Inc., a New York research firm.

And that federal antispam law enacted in January has so far proved useless. There have been a few prosecutions and lawsuits, but not nearly enough. The feds blundered by forbidding individual Internet users from suing junk e-mailers.

Early this year, it looked like engineers had hit upon a powerful, elegant tool that would have made it impossible for spammers to hide their true e-mail addresses. Microsoft Corp. liked the idea, except for the fact that Microsoft would not control it. So Microsoft added some patented technology. That scared away major e-mailers like AOL, who have no desire to feel Bill Gates's fists round their windpipes. Microsoft has since backed down a little on patent claims, and AOL is on board. But rivals like Yahoo remain committed to an alternate technology. The impasse continues, and a technical fix for spam seems a long way off.

It's all so frustrating, and Lycos Europe figured to capitalize on our sense of baffled rage. Just install the screensaver, the company said. It automatically sends a stream of data to Internet addresses that are known to produce lots of spam. This traffic will slow their computers by 95 percent, making it impossible to churn out more than a few spam messages.

Too bad this plan is flagrantly illegal. It's essentially a ''distributed denial of service," or DDOS, attack -- the same sort that has been used to shut down legitimate sites like Yahoo. DDOS-ing someone is a federal offense on this side of the pond, even if the victim is a sleaze.

Antispam activists had no kind words for Lycos Europe's tactics. ''This is fighting abuse with abuse," said Steve Linford, founder of the British spam-fighting organization Spamhaus. ''We've been on the receiving end of so many of these DDOS attacks, we don't think they're very funny," he said.

A spokesman said the Lycos system was designed to slow traffic from spammers, not shut it down, and that it was therefore not illegal. It's a distinction that would probably be lost on a US judge. Besides, the Make Love Not Spam software completely shut down two spam servers in China, according to the British Internet monitoring company Netcraft.

But you know how spammers are; they quickly move to new, unblocked addresses. In addition, they launched a counterattack that blew away the Lycos website that distributed the screensaver. They got help from legitimate Internet companies. Worried that the Lycos Europe antispam attack would flood their own networks, they blocked all incoming Lycos traffic.

Meanwhile, the copy installed on a computer at the Globe doesn't work. It's supposed to contact Lycos, get the address of the spammer, and then hammer him. Instead, the software just blanks out the computer screen, while displaying two words: stay tuned. I'm tempted. Despite freshly minted laws and upgraded software filters, the spam keeps coming, more loathsome by the day. Why not subject our tormentors to a little frontier justice? Well, because it's wrong. And because it won't work. Lycos Europe knows that now. I'd wager that they knew it all along.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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