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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Death, taxes ... and now spam

Six months ago, when a notorious 20-something dubbed the "Spam King" was busted in a downtown penthouse, the feds promised we'd see a big...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Six months ago, when a notorious 20-something dubbed the "Spam King" was busted in a downtown penthouse, the feds promised we'd see a big drop in spam.

"Aurelia" begs to differ. Aurelia is my latest pet spammer. She — he? it? — has e-mailed me 22 times in the past week, offering "pharmacy pills to cool patients at discount." Her spams always include lines of "spoetry" — software-generated nonsense or quotes that have nothing to do with what she's selling.

"Each new generation is a fresh invasion of savages," she'll say, after pitching me rock-bottom Vicodin.

Or: "Need Ambien? All hands parry the chafing."

Aurelia wasn't swayed by the demise of the Spam King. Nor is anyone else. I now get 100 spams a day or more — enough that the whole concept of e-mail is losing its allure.

This week the computer security firm IronPort said spam has doubled this year, to 120 billion messages daily. That's 20 spams a day for every human on the planet.

And it's up 50 percent since Robert Soloway, aka the Seattle Spam King, was arrested.

It turns out he was more plebeian than king.

The feds say Soloway, 27, sent out tens of millions of spams over a four-year period, most of it from Apartment 17E in the Harbor Steps complex.

But as near as I can tell from court documents, the most they have linked Soloway to is a few million e-mails a day. They also say he sold software that allowed others to send a million spams a day, often by hijacking other computers.

Even if Soloway was the source of 100 million junk mails a day, what's astonishing — and depressing — is how small a slice that is. He made life miserable for some, especially businesses whose computers he co-opted. But his operation likely was less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the rapidly expanding spamiverse.

Oren Etzioni, a UW computer science professor, says the case highlights how there are no obvious legal cures for spam. Just as "arresting a drug kingpin won't do much about drug use."

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He says the way to fight spam is, paradoxically, more spam. Spammers depend on only a few interested people responding. If they got millions of replies, almost all of which were bogus, their costs of dealing with the noise would soar. Not to mention it would "give them a taste of their own medicine," Etzioni says.

Only most of us don't have time to reply to our spam. Plus, it's dangerous — you can end up infecting your computer.

For his part, our dethroned Spam King is free, awaiting trial next spring. A judge let Soloway out of detention because he has Tourette's syndrome. Without his meds, he was racked with "uncontrollable tics" and went days without sleep. He became suicidal.

Court documents say he has no money. So the government's attempt to get $1 million in damages is likely fruitless.

You can try to fight spam, legislate it, sue it, filter it, scrub it from your inbox. It won't stop it from coming.

Are we in charge of this technology we invented, or is it in charge of us?

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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