This is a true story: in 1992 I single-handedly knocked AOL off the air. What brought it to mind is, I just now took my once-daily look at the junk-mail folder and wiped a few dozen pornospams with a single keystroke, and there were none in my inbox; antispam is getting good enough that I may never see another, and I remembered, lo my righteous wrath and the awful consequences when I got my first one. [Reposted for your amusement on its 20th anniversary.]

This (I’m pretty sure, maybe a year one way or t’other) would be 1992, and I was on research staff at the University of Waterloo working on the New Oxford English Dictionary Project.

[Update: After the repost, several people pointed out that AOL email didn’t start till 1992. Oops. The rest of the story stands.]

Waterloo’s Math Faculty Computing Facility at UW was then, and had been for years, one of the world centers of Unix expertise; we had dozens of big computers from Sun and DEC and MIPS (remember them?) supporting hundreds of Really Smart People; some had as many as 64MB of RAM, dig it. Hey, MFCF is still there.

In those days the Internet was young (we had to telnet to work and back, uphill both ways in the icy Canadian slush) but our lives were already email-centric.

Spam had begun to poison Usenet, but hardly ever appeared in email. So one Sunday morning I opened up my email and saw a note from (I’m pretty sure) and what do you know, it was from three college girls etc etc etc. I was flabbergasted; then livid with fury. Who were these turkeys pissing on my playground, who knows what this sending-smut-to-strangers could lead to? Obviously it was the duty of every right-thinking netizen to put a stop to this and soonest.

Now this may seem hard to believe, but I (and a lot of people) didn’t really know what AOL was; I had this vague idea it was some bulletin-board thing.

So I waited till after supper when things were quieting down, and visited the MFCF computers where I had accounts, which was pretty well all of them (maybe a dozen?), and around 8PM launched a job on each of them which every ten seconds sent an email along the lines of:

Subject: Please stop this abuse of email
You sent me, a stranger, an invitation to purchase pornography.
This is an abuse of email; please stop doing it.

Then I hit the sack, because I had an early flight to California the next morning. On the way out the door I shut down all the jobs and noticed that my inbox had a handful of emails from AOL advising me that Lipstick’s mailbox was full. The last couple were kind of mangled and borked, something was breaking.

Later that morning in the SFO rent-a-car bus, two businessmen were talking and one said to the other "Weird, I couldn’t get onto AOL this morning, it’s been down for hours." I kept my face straight. I poked around on Usenet and apparently they were down for over a day with some sort of grievous email meltdown. I can’t prove that I did it.

The thing was, at that point in history, the idea of sending filth to strangers was so new and so weird that they probably didn’t feel they could make much of a complaint.

When I got back to Waterloo, I had email from the Director of the computing facility saying “er, someone’s complaining, hard to take 'Lipstick@AOL' seriously but you know anything about this?” The complaint was funny, along the lines of " is MEAN to GIRLS!!!!!!!!!" I seem to remember apologizing and that was the end of the story.

No, I think this month may have been the end of the story for me, because it doesn’t happen any more; thank you to Mr. Bayes, whoever you were, and to Paul Graham for figuring out how to use that math.

The story’s not over for everyone; my retired Mother just within the last month got her first pornospam and was really upset - "It was from a name I thought I recognized, and it had awful stuff in it!" Indeed it did, but maybe not for long.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Preston L. Bannister (Mar 27 2023, at 19:24)

There was a time (in the late 1990s?) where if you sent any response at all to a spam email, they would automatically send a lot more spam.

So I responded, setting the "From:" header to another spammer.

A short time later, both sites stopped responding to pings.


From: John Sellens (Jun 13 2023, at 22:35)

MFCF one of the world centres of UNIX expertise? It's probably fair to say that you've had a wider view of things since then than I have, but we did do a pretty good job of creating an effective computing environment, didn't we? Cheers! John


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