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Posted on Sat, Apr. 20, 2002

The ethics of spam: `There's lots of money in it'


Mercury News

Ronnie Scelson is not your ordinary spammer.

He returns reporters' calls, for one thing. For another, the Louisiana native admits many people probably hate him for what he does -- even if, as he insists, he tries to follow what few laws apply.

Anti-spam crusaders, however, call him the ``King of Cajun Spam.''

He has been identified as a prolific spammer by several anti-spam organizations. And many Internet access providers have cut him off, prompting him to re-evaluate his business -- which at one time sent millions of e-mail pitches a day, according to Scelson, for everything from insurance to Florida vacations.

Scelson describes himself as a ninth-grade drop-out. He honed his computer skills after his mother gave him his first computer.

Why spam? ``It seemed fun, a challenge -- and there's lots of money in it,'' said Scelson, 29, who lives in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell with his wife and three children. He says he owns a Ferrari, Corvette and a Dodge Ram King Cab.

Scelson has his own peculiar set of e-mail ethics.

He said he honors requests by spam recipients to be removed from his lists, tries to avoid deceptive advertising and shuns hijacking others' Internet links.

But Scelson was harshly denounced on anti-spam message boards when it appeared he was cashing in on Sept. 11 terrorist fears. On Sept. 12, he sent out e-mails with a subject line: ``Urgent: Help your Fellow Americans!!!''

While the e-mail provided a link to the American Red Cross, most of the message was a pitch to buy life insurance. Scelson said he unintentionally linked the two messages, and killed the insurance pitch portion that same day.

Scelson also gained attention 18 months ago, after anti-spam advocate Steve Linford posted on the Internet copies of contracts proving Scelson had negotiated unusual terms with his Internet service provider, PSINet. The deal allowed him to use his Web connection to send bulk e-mail pitches that would, in effect, weaken the ISP's anti-spamming provisions. Scelson said he paid $27,900 for the right.

PSINet, which is being dissolved in bankruptcy court, blamed an irresponsible junior employee for the contract, which was immediately canceled. Some anti-spam advocates said the incident showed how poorly some ISPs enforce their own policies against junk e-mail.

``Lots of people say what I do is unethical. What do ethics have to do with it?'' Scelson said. ``It's all about the law, what you can and cannot do. People say pornography is unethical, but Playboy has a pretty good business.''

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