At the risk of breaching Internet civility, Lycos Europe is offering computer users a weapon against spam-spewing servers: a screen-saver program that automatically hits the offenders with data to slow them down.
Around 65,000 people already have signed up for the offensive, called "Make Love not Spam" before Tuesday's official launch, the company said. It is urging its 22 million users to download the screen-saver, but says anyone with a computer is welcome to it.
The company insists the technique is legal -- it says the culprit servers are simply choked a bit, not completely asphyxiated -- and dismissed concerns that computers which ping servers blamed for unwanted Internet traffic are further clogging the world's digital pipeline.
The program activates whenever a computer equipped with it goes into standby mode, and sends so-called HTTP get-requests to what Lycos says are servers known to generate unsolicited e-mails. When done en masse, this eats up precious bandwidth, causing the servers to overload and slow down, the company said.
The goal, said Lycos Europe spokesman Kay Oberbeck, is to "show the owners of such spam web sites that there is massive interest of thousands of users who are not willing to just give up against more and more spam each day."
Company promises to be careful
Lycos chooses its targets by reviewing spam monitors such as www.spamcop.com and manually checking blacklisted sites to see if they really do carry products promoted by spam.
But Oberbeck acknowledged the risk of going after a legitimate site that has been hijacked by a spam-spewing site. "You have to be careful and that is what we are doing," he said from Guetersloh, Germany.
He said Lycos takes care not to crash spam servers altogether, respecting at least some of their bandwidth. "They will never go down below 5 percent bandwidth. Never."
Is it legal? "Yes. We checked."
Cyberspace activism -- such as virtual sit-ins in which computer users gang together and point browsers at a site, then use automated tools to send requests to it -- is not new, said Dorothy Denning, a professor of defense analysis at the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
But in this case a for-profit company is the driving force. "I guess the interesting question is whether or not that company might be liable under some law, and would probably be liable, certainly, at least under a lawsuit by the spammers," she said.
And the Lycos screen-saver adds more traffic to the Internet even as it tries to clear it of unwanted traffic, and probably has a minor impact on the targeted sites. "Those sites can always just pack up and use another IP address," Denning said. Or they can just buy more bandwidth.
"The cost off adding extra bandwidth may be worth the reward that comes from spamming," she said.