Address Munging Considered Harmful
Date: 1998/12/08 02:34:45
This document also available in Postscript.
Copyright ©1998 Matt Curtin, All Rights Reserved
Many solutions have been suggested to manage the problem of Internet
abuse. These methods have varying degrees of success and utility.
I argue that the practice of address munging is in itself a problem.
Those who mine the Internet in search of a quick buck without regard
to their negative effect are akin to terrorists, and rather than
close our eyes, we netizens must fight them, intelligently and
effectively. We must not allow those who abuse the Internet to
destroy it, or to push us to destroy it.
The problem of net abuse is a relatively new one in the history of
what is now known as the Internet community. However, it has now been
more than four years since our first sightings of massive Internet
abuse, and in that time, we have learned a number of things about it
and how to deal with it. Unfortunately, some of these methods are
``Munging'' (sometimes also inappropriately called ``spam blocking'')
is the practice of turning email addresses into a form that humans can
understand, but that is unreadable by computers. For example,
<email@example.com> is a munged version of the address
<firstname.lastname@example.org>. A human can easily determine the correct
address, but software designed to read email addresses will read the
A number of self-serving, money-hungry, socially irresponsible, and
otherwise obnoxious people have become Internet users in recent years.
Many of these people who fancy themselves ``marketers'' have mined
various Internet sources for email addresses to whom to send
advertisements via email. An increasing number of users who are
becoming desperate for and end to the endless parade advertisements
for pyramid schemes, miracle cures, and ``bulk email services'' have
taken to preventing the ``publication'' of their email addresses.
Some users who resist publication of their email addresses no longer
participate in any sort of public online message exchange, such as
Usenet and mailing lists. Others have begun to munge their addresses
to prevent spammers from harvesting them for use in their lists of
There is even a Usenet FAQ that discusses how to effectively munge
To understand the reasoning behind this document, it is useful to
know something about how spamming is akin to terrorist activity.
Terrorism is the practice of using fear to accomplish an objective,
probably one that is unpopular. In general, this is best done by
breaking the rules of society in such a way--such as hijacking
passenger airplanes and planting bombs in busy metropolitan
areas--that people will be motivated to give into the demands of the
Spamming, as well as other practices which can be more abstractly
called ``Internet abuse'', are similar to terrorism in that during the
course of accomplishing their objectives--often making a lot of money
with comparatively little work, the rules of society are broken.
Historically, an overwhelming theme of the Internet has been one of
respect for the resource, as well as the time and resources of other
members of the Internet community. Spammers wantonly disregard the
Internet's unique culture, using a number of arguments in an attempt
to justify their own selfish, disrespectful behavior. No matter how
you look at it, the issue of spam takes the time, money, and resources
of millions of Internet users and administrators, without their
consent, and even against their will. This is in every way contrary
to the Internet's culture.
A terrorist can be motivated by a number of things. Perhaps he is
part of a group of people who have been subjected to a foreign
government's authority without representation. In that case, he might
be using fear of attack as a tool to gain representation in the
government over him. Perhaps he is hoping to overthrow a government
in power. In that case, he could be hoping to effectively break the
operational ability of the government by eliminating some number of
its leaders, using fear to prevent them from working against the
terrorist's agenda, or both.
By the very nature of the ideological battle between terrorists and
societies, the playing field is not level. That is, societies, in
some form or another, agree to abide by some set of rules. These
typically include limitations of the government's power, requiring
some sort of process for guilt to be established, and a framework for
Terrorists, on the other hand, have no rules, or at least they allow
themselves more freedom in action than do the societies against which
they fight. If a terrorist's goal is to subvert a government or to
overturn a society, he succeeds if he is able to make the government
ineffective or if he succeeds in making the society break its own
rules, even if dealing with him.
The society itself can only win if the terrorist is stopped. It can
be argued that any changes in the society's rules in order to stop the
terrorist are, in some sense, a loss.
Address munging, by definition, is breaking some of the Internet's
functionality. As such, some of its value is lost. Rather than allow
the Internet to be broken, piece by piece, by those who show no
respect for it, we netizens should stand our ground and fight those
who do not wish to become part of our society, but rather want only to
make a quick buck from it at the expense and to the detriment of
Those who munge their addresses are generally not interested in
decreasing the value of the Internet, or breaking any of its
functionality. They simply want spam to stop.
People send spam because it's cheap enough that even if it does not
work as advertised, the loss to the spammer is not significant. This
issue has been covered in greater detail in many other documents about
network abuse, so it's not necessary to cover that here.
The best way to eliminate spam is to eliminate its effectiveness.
That is, by having the accounts from which the spam originates
canceled quickly--before the spam is finished being sent--and taking
down web sites and email drop boxes advertised with spam before
any replies can be accumulated, we can make spam a completely
ineffective method of promoting a service or product on the Internet.
As noted above, however, this is only the first step. The cost of
spamming must be made higher. Some are doing this through
legislation, others through private litigation, and some ISPs through
expensive ``clean-up'' charges applied to the spammers through the
terms-of-service agreement. However, in order for any of these to
take place, it is necessary to catch and then complain about the
You might say ``Yeah, but if I don't munge my address, the spammers
will get me!'' That, to some extent, is true. But neither will you
get them. That is, you can close your eyes to the problem, but it
doesn't go away, and you will suffer the effects, in the form of
higher costs from ISPs who have to employ staff to deal with network
abuse, degraded quality of service in the form of legitimate mail
relays bogged down with spam and wasted bandwidth, and other
Sending mail to your munged address costs the spammer nothing. It
brings his accounts no closer to elimination. However, if you are
effective at complaining about spam, you can actually increase the
spammers' costs and make his business model even less effective by
having his accounts deleted and his feeds eliminated.
As noted earlier, address munging does not hurt the spammer in any
way, or bring the problem any closer to elimination. It merely
provides a way for you to usually close your eyes to the problem.
Some have munged their address in hopes of creating more bounces for
the spammer to handle. In practice, this simply does not work, since
the origin is forged, almost without exception.
The standards upon which Usenet is built, that is, the specification
for the system's operation, requires that the poster use a legitimate
email address. Making exceptions to standards simply for short-term
convenience is unwise at best. At worst, it jeopardizes the
Internet's long-term viability to continue the same level of utility
that it has enjoyed.
Allowing standards to be broken is contradictory to the philosophy
behind the Internet, that is, of specific, published standards for
system operation. It is this philosophy that has allowed the Internet
to grow to meet the tremendous demands placed on it, not only in total
volume, but in growth, during this decade. Systems built on other
philosophies have not been able to approach the Internet's level of
scalability or longevity. This suggests that the Internet's way of
doing things is right.
Those who manage the systems whose addresses have been forged or
whose hosts have been used for relaying will need to deal with even
more bounces than usual.
In addition, you will have some hassle trying to juggle your munged
and non-munged addresses, trying to remember which to use for each
occasion, and having to set it back and forth. And if you forget to
switch to your munged address and post to Usenet, all of the effort
you've put forth to protect your address will have gone to waste.
Even someone who perfectly manages their munged addresses will receive
spam at some point. The battle between spammers and other netizens is
essentially an arms race. Each measure that one takes eventually has
a countermeasure from the other group. You might find that as
spammers and those who sell lists of targets become more
sophisticated, those lists will be ``de-munged'' by increasingly
intelligent harvesting software.
The end result is that all of the effort you put in to hiding your
address goes to waste.
Rather than spending that precious energy trying in vain to protect
your address, why not invest that energy into learning how to use
effective tools for complaining about net abuse, thereby actually
working to solve the problem (by making spam less effective) rather
than just closing your eyes to it?
Section four of the Email Abuse FAQ at
covers how to effectively complain about spam.
I personally use adcomplain.pl (periodically posted to
and the abuse.net service
Such tools have reduced the amount of time for complaining about spam
to just a second or two longer than necessary to delete the message.
Additionally, my mail server is protected with the MAPS (Mail Abuse
Prevention System) RBL (Realtime Black List),
which prevents it from accepting mail from mail servers known to send
spam and not work to prevent it.
Though active in many Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists, and being
listed in numerous directories for various projects around the
Internet, I spend less than 10 minutes of each day dealing with spam.
This isn't to say I do not get any spam, but rather that using the
tools available, I can effectively fight spam without breaking the
Internet or spending huge amounts of time.
I urge all netizens to play their part--however great or small--in
stopping spam, by standing their ground against spam, neither by
``learning to accept it'' nor by reducing the quality and
functionality of the Internet.
Address Munging Considered Harmful
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