Open Letter To AT&T About Spam

ATTN: C. Michael Armstrong

Peter Seebach
904 Western Avenue North
St. Paul, MN 55117-5232

Dear Mr. Armstrong:

I am sending you this letter at the request of your customer service people. I recently called to explain why I was not switching back to AT&T, and they gave me your fax number, and asked that I explain my concerns to you.

I am writing to explain why, after eight years, I switched from AT&T's long distance service. I'm writing to explain why a man who spent over a year defending AT&T Worldnet's service and policies, against hundreds of detractors, gave up in disgust and switched to another provider.

I'm writing about spam.

No, not the Hormel product. Spam is Usenet jargon for "Unsolicited Bulk Email" (and also for inappropriate postings to dozens of Usenet newsgroups). It refers to messages sent to groups of people who have not requested email from the sender.

Spam is, in essence, unsolicited pay-per-view advertising. Spam is like a telemarketer calling you at dinner time -- collect. People pay for their email access. Many pay by the minute, retrieve their email over cellular phones, or even make international calls to get caught up on their email. Obviously, when that email is unsolicited advertisements, they are forced to spend their own money to receive advertising that they did not ask for, and have no interest in. Spam is generally considered to be somewhere on the fine line between theft and tresspass to chattel.

Here's why. When you buy advertisements, in a newspaper or on a billboard, or even on TV during the SuperBowl, you're paying for "impressions" -- times people see your ad. The people selling these ads are selling you the use of space that they have developed. For instance, the company that puts your ad on a billboard presumably owns the billboard.

I own my electronic mailbox, or perhaps my ISP does. AT&T does not own my electronic mailbox. Nor do any of the bulk mailing firms. So, in essence, they are selling, or taking, property they don't own. This is in the category of sticking flyers on cars - which is illegal in many places, you'll notice. It's very much like junk faxes, or telemarketing to cellular phones. It's not the way legitimate companies do business; the conclusion people draw from this is that, if a company spams, it must not be legitimate.

AT&T sent out some spam. It wasn't a big spam, as spams go -- only about a thousand people. But it was spam; the people it was sent to (webmasters of sites related to portable phones) hadn't asked for it, and it was sent out in bulk. For more details, see the CNet news article at,4,18098,00.html (titled "AT&T Spams Webmasters").

If you see this letter, it is quite possible that someone else read it first, and decided that it was worth it for you to spend your time reading it. Many of the people that AT&T sent email to don't have staff to filter for them, but they're probably just as busy as you are.

Now, lots of companies have made mistakes like this, but AT&T compounded their mistake. AT&T didn't return calls. AT&T didn't return emails. AT&T pretended the people complaining weren't important. I was one of those people, and I sent a letter asking for a position on the report that AT&T spammed. The result was stony silence. My message didn't get returned as undeliverable, it just didn't get answered. In fact, only one of the people I know who sent complaints, or even just requests for information, got a response -- and it took him six weeks.

The response was, in essence, that the AT&T mailing wasn't spam, just a request to exchange links. This is meaningless; no matter what AT&T was asking for, they sent out an unsolicited bulk message. It's still spam.

That's not the only AT&T spam problem; the second is EasyLink. AT&T's Worldnet service used to have a lot of trouble with spammers, but they've mostly got it under control. Their abuse desk is competent, if not always fast. For a long time, Worldnet had a very bad reputation; people would send out millions of messages through it, and nothing would happen. One of the reasons Worldnet didn't just get dropped in everyone's mail filters is a guy who goes by "Old Salt".

For as long as I've been following the war on spam, Old Salt has been there defending Worldnet. About a week or two ago, he quit. He went and joined another ISP. Now remember, for about two years, this man spent easily a couple of hours a week defending Worldnet's name. Without compensation. Without official backing. With no official statements by Worldnet to support him. Why did he do it? Because he cared. And when he was confronted with the EasyLink thing, he gave up.

What's wrong with EasyLink? Spam. Not direct spam, from EasyLink's machines, but a less direct kind, called "Haven Spam". Here's how it works: Suppose I buy web hosting service from EasyLink. I use 50 hour free trial accounts at CompuServe, Worldnet, and the like, and I send out millions upon millions of ads for my EasyLink-hosted web page. I crash mail servers. I wreak havoc. (By the way, this is all hypothetical; I, personally, certainly don't do this.)

EasyLink doesn't care. After all, I didn't use their servers, right?

Well, not so right. The RBL ("Real-time Blackhole List" -- see is a widely-used list of sites that many sites (estimates are as high as 10% of the internet population) use to filter out spam sources. Haven spam is a sufficient qualification to land on this list. The RBL is serious; even Netcom has agreed to fix their spam problem, now that they've spent over a month on the RBL, which you can read all about at: I would like to quote for you the opening paragraph of that story, and ask you to replace the word "Netcom" with AT&T, and see what you think about it:

"After being rendered invisible to large sections of the Internet for more than a month by a far-reaching anti-spam activism project, Netcom went back on the map last week -- to the relief of many subscribers who had found their email bouncing back to them with a cryptic error message."

Please consider what you might say to hundreds of thousands of your customers when they find themselves in this situation, which may happen if AT&T EasyLink does not change their policy of providing Internet connectivity to spammers. Please consider what you might say to them when they come to you and say "I read about why AT&T was on the blackhole list, and they were right."

Sounds pretty awful, doesn't it? There is, however, a way out.

The solution to the first problem is this: adopt a company-wide policy of never, ever, sending unsolicited bulk messages. If you want to build mailing lists, use an "opt-in" policy, where people are only added to a mailing list if they explicitly ask to be added. This is the best imaginable way to target mailings; it gives you a guarantee that everyone on the list is responsive, and very few, if any, will mind being on the list. (You do need to confirm subscriptions, to prevent people from using your mailing lists to mailbomb others.) Publicize this policy, and apologize for the spam you already sent.

The solution to the second problem is easy. Put EasyLink, and any other bandwidth reselling that AT&T does, under the authority of the same people that have cleaned up Worldnet. Keep the policy firm; don't allow spam havens. You might also want to investigate other TOS violations; apparently, EasyLink prohibits pornography, but there are a lot of porn sites there. That's not as big an issue, in terms of net-abuse, but on the other hand, explicit solicitations sent to minors are probably a bigger issue in public relations terms. And yes, they do send explicit solicitations to minors.

To summarize, I'm concerned because AT&T spammed, because AT&T did not respond to complaints about this spam, and because AT&T appears to be (probably inadvertantly) providing significant connectivity to spammers. I'm bothered by this because I want to like AT&T; I've been a fan of Unix for years, and I remember who paid the people who invented it.

Anyway, this being an open letter, I've been discussing the contents with other people, and a number have asked to be cosigners of this letter, and provided additional comments. I know, they didn't physically sign; what can you do with a grass roots movement that covers at least three continents?

Sam Varshavchik
I have a very small consumer relationship with AT&T and the only reason I still do is because the product is a unique offering by AT&T, that no other competitor has. AT&T is not going to get any future business from me, furthermore as soon as I'm aware of a competitive product from someone else, I'm gone.
Old Salt is the site of their TOC for Easy Link, which does NOT warn users not to spam from other ISPs, only from their AT&T's Easy Link. So there is nothing in place to keep Web Page owners from spamming from a differen

Also AT&T hosts a Bulk E-mail program dealer at which was the straw that broke my back and the reason I left.

Also they are hosting which is hosted by AT&T, which host the following sex sites and since we all know how much sex sites love to spam they are all another group of spammers who will not lose their accounts.
Clifton T. Sharp
I've always had a lot of respect for AT&T, and always used and recommended their services and products. Largely this has been not only because of my perception of quality, but also of AT&T's long-term vision and good- neighbor policies of doing business. If it has become AT&T's policy to give aid and comfort to those whose selfish, destructive behavior causes significant harm to other companies, perhaps it is time I reevaluated my business patterns and recommendations to friends and clients.
Keith Lynch
Keith also switched from AT&T LD service. As he says, "Loyal AT&T customer from 1977 through 1997, but no longer." His .signature (appended automatically to news postings and email from him) tells all:

Keith Lynch,
I boycott all spammers.

Keith asks that I mention to you "" -- AT&T's dialup ports, which are a constant source of spam. People would complain, but all of the standard email addresses (e.g., don't work.

Ronald D. Edge
My involvement in these issues came about from my efforts to understand this abuse in order to protect my users from this phenomenon.

AT&T should consider what happened to Indiana University. Our central mail servers were not closed off to relay of email from outside IU. During the past few months, spammers discovered this and were funneling massive UCE/UBE/spam through our systems. Aside from the drain on our resources, this resulted in the IU domain,, being blackholed at a number of sites. Suddenly faculty and staff and students could not communicate with those sites. Only after this did the administrators of our email systems respond, and shut off the open relays.

AT&T really needs to heed the facts and arguments Peter lays out in this article. They are accurate. The only thing I see missing that would help drive the point home is some of the simple math based on number of businesses times number of potential spams per business per day, and how quickly such abuse would simply make email unusable. Who can read their email if they are swamped with what would quickly become 1,000's of emails in their inbox every day?

Jouni Leppajarvi, Oulu, Finland
Count me in. You can tell them I'm canceling my AT&T international calling card.
Michael S. Scheidell
Administrator of, an existing ATT worldnet T1 customer, an existing ATT 800 customer, and existing ATT longt distance customer who has added this spam incident, but most importantly: THEIR ATTITUDE TOWARDS THIS SPAM to my list of things that will eventually make me switch all three services if not addressed at the higest levels.
Richard B. Talley
Two phone numbers, both using AT&T LD service, but not for long!
Jym Dyer
They're also not good at honoring the requirement that they stop calling you after you demand that they remove your phone number from their telemarketing database.
Jonathan Rynd
I'd like to be included -- tell them I steered my parents away from the AT&T Worldnet account they had been using. Went to BA-net.
David Grabiner
I've just switched away from AT&T's long distance service. In terms AT&T customer service can understand, I object to AT&T's endorsement of advertising on my phone bill and on my employer's property. I have been unable to contact my students because of excessive spam on the local mailserver.

[David is a professor; spam (not all of it AT&T's) has gotten in the way of the regular functioning of the mail server he needs to use to do his work. He doesn't get unlimited local calls; if he has to make too many calls to get his mail, guess what, he pays for it.]

Lucie Gelinas, Alberta, Canada
Our local phone company is considering a possible business partnership with AT&T:

I have forwarded a draft of this letter to Jeff Welke, Telus Corporate Communications ( and I'm sure that current AT&T customers would be interested in reading about this issue in our local newspapers.

Klaus-Georg Adams, Karlsruhe, Germany
I'd like to `sign' your letter to AT&T. All I ever got with `' in the headers was spam so far.
David Simpson, Australia
I, too, have received spam from AT&T. I, too, have complained to AT&T. I, too, am still waiting for AT&T to do something about it.

It is imperative that a company of AT&T's size and importance as a telecommunications carrier not only do the right thing -- which they currently do not -- but are seen doing so. That means not allowing their customers -- no matter how far up or down the line -- to impose costs on others for their own gain, which is what spam is.

Chuck Asaner
Count me in. We will cancel all our 800 and long-distance services that we had years. Never switched to others, despite pressures. Now is the time to switch.
Tim Manchester
Please add my name to the list. I considered AT&T's online service, but went with Mountain Web ( because of their strong anti-spam stance. I will be going ISDN within the next two months and sadly Mountain Web does not offer it, so I will be in the market. Now if AT&T cleaned up their act, I might reconsider them for providing my connectivity.
Peter Vorobieff
AT&T: EasyLink must change its policy.
Steve Atkins (
I object to theft, direct or indirect, by any company. I don't do business with companies that profit from theft. That includes AT&T.
Tom Betz
I'm responsible for selecting the long-distance service provider (both incoming and outgoing) for five offices run by my organization.

I've already changed my personal long-distance provider from AT&T. Despite many years of excellent service from AT&T long-distance and a representative with whom I have an excellent rapport, and who has worked hard to give my organization the best possible rate, I am shopping now for a replacement provider for my employer, and intend to change providers by mid-year. Despite the excellent rates we are now getting, it will not be hard to justify this change to my employer on cost alone; I wouldn't have to advise them of the real reason I want to do it -- AT&T's foolish adoption of theft (unsolicited bulk commercial email advertising) as a business practice.

I probably will advise them, anyway. My employers share my principles; otherwise, I'd be working for someone else.

Mickey Chandler
It took me 6 weeks and several personal long distance telephone calls to get a response from AT&T. AT&T's response to concerns is deplorable. The lack of a coherent anti-spam policy didn't help, either. I'm sure AT&T won't miss my $150 dollars a month in long distance and PCS money.
Wolfgang Rupprecht
I block all email from that is delivered here to The reason is that it's 99% spam and AT&T just doesn't seem to care enough to stop it. I just don't need the aggravation.
Jim Wissick
Count me in. Due to the high flow of spam from ATT, I will be taking my long distance dollars elsewhere. I will be back when they have found a working solution and it proves solid.
Eric Guy
If it is not too late, please include me on the list of appended names. I will be changing the LD provider for my home lines and working to get my company to change the LD provider.
Bob O`Brien
I, too, have a unique AT&T service (an "Easy Reach" number) which I do not believe I could obtain elsewhere. Otherwise, the SPAM issue would be enough to convince me to take my business elsewhere, as I have done, for example, with Amazon Books and Symantec Software.
Jim Rusling
You can add me to the list. I was
David Knapp
Count me in. I'm going to MCI, and not looking back.
Peter Seebach
What can I say? I took the time to write this all up. I want AT&T to fix these problems. But I can't do business with spammers. If I won't draw the line, why should I expect a line to be drawn?

If you want to reach me, your best option is email (Solicited email has never been a problem). I welcome discussion with you, or anyone involved in this, on this issue. My email address is ''. You could also call me; I'm generally around during the day, but I'm often on another phone. I don't really take faxes if I can avoid it; I have a cheap inkjet fax, and even short faxes are too expensive. Or, you could snail mail me.

Because I believe this to be an important issue, and because many people agree with me, I'm writing this as an open letter; a full copy will be available on my web site. If you wish to respond publicly, I'll be glad to post or link to a response.