How Bots Were Born From Spam

John Ohno
8 min readMay 6, 2016

The first commercial spam message was sent in 1994—at least that’s the general consensus. Lawrence Canter and Margaret Siegel had a program written that would post a copy of an advertisement for their law firm’s green card lottery paperwork service to every Usenet news group — about 6,000 of them.

Because of the way the messages were posted, Usenet clients couldn’t filter out duplicate copies, and users saw a copy of the same message in every group. At the time, commercial use of internet resources was rare (it had only recently become legal) and access to Usenet was expensive. Users considered these commercial-seeming messages to be crass—not only did they take up their time, but they also cost them money.

In reaction to the “green card” incident, Arnt Gulbrandsen created the concept of a “cancelbot,” which compared the content of messages to a list of known “spam” messages and then, masquerading as the original sender, sent a special kind of message to “cancel” the original message, hiding and deleting it. Two months after the original spam postings, Canter and Siegel did it again — upon which the combined load of spam and cancel messages crashed many Usenet servers. Anti-spam measures, it seems, had themselves become spam.

A Usenet client, showing message groupings. A message cross-posted to multiple groups would only appear once. Image credit: Public domain

While this was the beginning of commercial Usenet spam, this was not the beginning of Usenet spam in general. Prior to April of 1994, a poster known as Sedar Argic would automatically reply to any message containing the word “turkey” with a lengthy rant denying the Armenian genocide. This, of course, made discussions of Thanksgiving celebrations difficult.

The thing about all of these early forms of Usenet spam is that the messages were always identical. Cancelbots worked because the messages they were canceling were either identical or changed very infrequently — they could be compared to a human-maintained list of spam messages (a “corpus” of spam).

But even during this era there were Usenetters using a new technology that would upset this and future countermeasures: Markov chains, which are a popular tool among modern bot-makers. Invented in 1913 by Russian mathematician Andrey

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.