Now here’s a blast from the past. I was trolling Usenet recently (many of you may know it better as Google groups since Google borged Usenet), and I came across the letter to the editor that I wrote in reponse to a letter that the American Bar Association Journal had published, written by Martha Siegel (she of the Canter and Siegel Green Card Lottery Spam infamy). In the letter, Ms. Siegel attempted to justify the mass-spamming of Usenet that she and her associate had done in the name of trying to drum up business for their law firm. It was, if not the first mega-spam, certainly the most high-profile of those among the first.
For a little background, here’s what went down. Back in the mid-90s, the United States instituted a “green card lottery”, which would allow some people who were waiting to qualify for a green card (permanent resident status for immigrants) to be entered in a pool of applicants who, if chosen in the ‘lottery’, would jump to the front of the line and avoid a wait of, sometimes, years, to otherwise get their green card. As you might imagine, the Green Card Lottery became a heyday for immigration lawyers.
The law firm of Canter and Siegel (Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel) was perhaps one of the more Internet-savvy law firms back in those early days of the ‘net. They hired a programmer to write a script for them which would post an advertisement for their services for those interested in the Green Card Lottery, and post it to just about every single Usenet group (again, now known to most via Google groups) available. In all, they spammed nearly 6000 newsgroups!
The below is my response – posted to Usenet – to Ms. Siegel’s letter to the American Bar Association publication, the ABA Journal.
Date: Fri, Sep 9 1994 4:17 pm
Subject: Canter and Siegel – ptooey
The following letter to the editor of the ABA Journal, from Martha
Siegel, of Canter & Siegel, appeared in the September issue.
I am personally disgusted by this.
I would urge any of you who feel strongly about this to drop the ABA
editorial staff a line (their email address follows) and let them know
how folks really feel about this issue. My own letter is appended at the
end of this.
The ABA Editorial email address is: [redacted]
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Here is Ms. Siegel’s letter, attempting to justify their mass-spamming of thousands of Usenet groups:
Of the many hundres of stories that have appeared in (the
media) regarding our computer advertising activities on the Internet,
one of the most misleading and least objective appeared inthe ABA
Journal (“Lawyers’ Internet Ad Angers Users,” July, page 26). The
writer says we offended “more people than anyone thought possible”
while receiving only a few polite requests for the information we
We received more than 20,000 positive responses requesting
information. Close to 1,000 of those responding became paying
clients. The number of information requests and the number of
critical responses were about equal. Of the estimated 10 million
Internet discussion group participants, the great majority were not
sufficiently interested to register any opinion.
Clearly there are many fascinating, cutting-edge legal issues
raised by commercialization of the Internet. The article concerning
our activities could have discussed them. Instead, the writer chose
to rehash an 8-year-old Florida disciplinary matter totally irrelevant
to the subject at hand. This highly questionable editorial decision
served the serious informational needs of absolutely no one.
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In sum, the article written was not fair to us. Perhaps
another, more thoughtful article is in order.
MARTHA S. SIEGEL
And here is my response:
It was not with a little disgust that I read Ms. Siegel’s letter
entitled “Information, Please” (September 1994, p. 13). As a very
active user of the Internet, personally responsible for the creation
and/or moderation of over a dozen Usenet discussion groups, I can say
unequivocally that Ms. Siegel’s assertions are patently false. A huge
percentage of regular users of the Internet were not only not “not
sufficiently concerned”, but were VERY concerned over Mr. Canter’s and
Ms. Siegel’s blatant and flagrant misuse of Internet resources.
While it MAY be true that the number of negative responses they
received did not far outnumber the number of “positive” responses,
what Ms. Siegel conveniently neglects to mention is that the negative
responses were so fast and furious in the coming, that the Internet
provider’s systems which Canter and Siegel used were crippled by the
sheer volume of complaint mail; what mail was received may be as
little as a tiny fraction of that complaint mail which was sent. What
Ms. Siegel further neglects to tell you of is the thousands of
Internet users who, rather than sending electronic complaint mail,
chose instead to discuss their oft-times vehement and angry
displeasure with Canter and Siegel’s antics on the public discussion
Many, many of us, attorney and lay-person alike, looked into
reporting them to their local bar and disciplinary authority, so
outraged were we, only to find that they were not admitted in the
state from which they posted, making the issue of discipline murky and
confused at best.
Their own Internet provider posted apologies for their actions; other
Internet providers of which I am personally aware have scrutinized
their own user contracts with Canter & Siegel to determine whether
they can close their systems to the firm.
Ms. Siegel closes her letter by complaining that your article covering
the fiasco was not fair to Canter and Siegel. I must say, coming from
a pair who seemingly thought not a wit about fairness before subjecting every
single discussion board, and every single Internet user they could
spew their ad towards, to unwanted, unsolicited, and for some, costly
advertising, I find the charge of “unfairness” ironic.
Anne P. Mitchell, Esq.
Palo Alto, California
But if you think that spamming 6000 Usenet groups and then defending it took chutzpah, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
As the ultimate audacious footnote to this, in 1997 Martha Siegel wrote a book, How To Make a Fortune on the Internet
As I always say, the frustrating thing about being a lawyer is that 95% of the lawyers out there…
…give the other 5% of us a bad name.
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