Fun_People Archive
14 Jun
I suggest that there should be a Mailer Decency Act (MDA)...

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 96 13:21:37 -0700
To: Fun_People
Subject: I suggest that there should be a Mailer Decency Act (MDA)...

Forwarded-by: Keith Bostic <>
From: Win Treese <>
Subject: mailer error du jour

I have a mailing list called the "Internet Index" where I send an occasional
collection of Internet statistics and entertaining facts. Keith was kind
enough to pass the most recent along to /dev/null. The direct mailing list
has over 9000 addresses on it, and every time I send something out, I get
a couple of hundred bounces back. I could write a weighty tome on what
mailers have to say when they bounce messages, but one in particular caught
my eye today.  Here it is:

X-Priority: 3 (Normal)
Subject: Undeliverable Message
X-Incognito-SN: 382
X-Incognito-Format: VERSION=2.01a ENCRYPTED=YES

It included a perfectly good MIME attachment as well, which decoded to a file
called "attach.Z".  Some salient points:

1. It's from the US Army.
2. It's "incognito", although we know the version and the "SN".
3. It's encrypted.

Well, not exactly. The .Z on the attachment was the clue, so I ran
uncompress.  Bingo. But what came out wasn't exactly a text file--it was a
text file with lots of nuls in it. (The astute reader will note that we have
now processed a message that claimed to be encrypted, but wasn't, appeared
to be compressed, and was, and was recoded in MIME for 7-bit transport, thus
spending your tax dollars on extra compute cycles used to transform a
message for no apparent reason.) The first part of the file said
"incognito.msg", a sure sign that we don't want any Russians, Iranians,
Iraqis, Cubans, or other "denied parties" reading this important piece of
national security information.  But there's still information to be gleaned,
for we find:

        Message not delivered to recipients below.  Press F1 for help with VNM
        error codes.

Unfortunately, pressing F1 on my keyboard does not, in fact, give me any
help with VNM error codes, which isn't terribly surprising, because I've
never even heard of VNM. Too bad it doesn't mean "Very Nice Mailer", which
would be a great name for a program that lived up to its name.

Fortunately, the message contains more information, and I don't really need
a working F1 key:

        VNM3043 -- MAILBOX IS FULL
        [user's address deleted, but it was incomprehensible anyway]

Well, that helps. I get lots of those messages--probably people who can't
be bothered to read their electronic mail so they create more of it for the
rest of us to read about the fact that their mailboxes are full.

Normally, I'd be reasonably happy at this point. The guy's mailbox is full,
and he gets yanked from the list. I show no mercy now, not with 200 bounces.
You bounce, you get bounced without a trace. But, this being an important
encrypted government document, there's more.

   The message cannot be delivered because the
   recipient's mailbox contains the maximum number of
   messages, as set by the system administrator.  The
   recipient must delete some messages before any
   other messages can be delivered.

   The maximum message limit for a user's mailbox is
   10,000.  The default message limit is 1000 messages.
   Administrators can set message limits using the
   Mailbox  Settings function available in the
   Manage User menu  (MUSER).

   When a user's mailbox reaches the limit, the
   user must delete some of the messages before
   the mailbox can accept any more incoming messages.

Now that's the part I couldn't have made up. It just would never occur to
me to include instructions to the system administrator in a message to a
user. You can imagine what happens next: "Oh, Mr/Ms System Manager, I got
this mail message about some problem with the mail system. Fortunately, you
don't actually have to know anything, because I have the instructions right
here! Please set message limits on the MUSER menu for the LUSER who can't
be bothered to read his mail."

The question, though, is how to respond. Do I send back a message saying
it's encrypted? Can I use gzip to avoid infringing any patents? What if the
FBI is concerned about improper use of government computers? What about PGP?
Is incognito MILSPEC COTS software?

So I have a modest proposal. Our distinguished representatives and senators
in Washington are very concerned now about what happens on the Internet,
and they're likely to want to take further action in the wake of the CDA
decision. I suggest that there should be a Mailer Decency Act (MDA) that
bans (subject to criminal and civil penalties) indecent mailer behavior of
all kinds, including (but not limited to) lying about the encoding of a
message, neglecting to inform a user of the address that failed,
incomprehensibility of error messages, etc. I tried to send this to my
congressman, but it bounced.  I couldn't tell why.

        - Win Treese

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