Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel

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Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel

Laurence A. Canter (b. June 24, 1953) and Martha S. Siegel (April 9, 1948 – 2000) were partners in a husband-and-wife firm of lawyers who, on April 12, 1994, posted the first massive commercial Usenet spam. To many people, this event, coming not long after the National Science Foundation lifted its unofficial ban on commercial speech on the Internet, marks the end of the Net's early period, when the original netiquette could still be enforced.

Canter and Siegel were not the first Usenet spammers. The "Green Card" spam was, however, the first commercial Usenet spam, and its unrepentant authors are seen as having fired the starting gun for the legions of spammers that now occupy the Internet.[1]

Green card spam[edit]

In early 1994, Canter and Siegel contracted with Leigh Benson to write a program to advertise on Usenet, but Benson was unable to write their software. In April 1994 they used a Perl script written by a Phoenix programmer known only as "Jason", to generate advertisements for their service of enrolling people in a "green card lottery". This US government program allocates a limited quantity of "green cards" to certain non-citizens, allowing them to stay and work in the country. The two lawyers offered to do the necessary paperwork for a fee.

Canter and Siegel sent their advertisement, with the subject "Green Card Lottery - Final One?", to at least 5,500 Usenet discussion groups, a huge number at the time.[2] Rather than cross-posting a single copy of the message to multiple groups, so a reader would only see it once (considered a common courtesy when posting the same message to more than one group), they posted it as separate postings in each newsgroup, so a reader would see it in each group they read. Their internet service provider, Internet Direct, received so many complaints that its mail servers crashed repeatedly for the next two days; it promptly terminated their service.[2] Despite the ire directed at the two lawyers, they posted another advertisement to 1,000 newsgroups in June 1994.[3] This time, Arnt Gulbrandsen put together the first software "cancelbot" to trawl Usenet and kill their messages within minutes.[4] The couple claimed in a December 1994 interview to have gained 1,000 new clients and "made $100,000 off an ad that cost them only pennies".

On May 5, 1994 the couple established a company called Cybersell,[5] with the web domain of (now belonging to classifieds). They promoted themselves as experts in the then-new business of online retail and in February 1995 undertook the first known commercial spamming on behalf of clients (so-called "spam for hire"). They wrote a book entitled How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway : Everyone's Guerrilla Guide to Marketing on the Internet and Other On-line Services (ISBN 0-06-272065-1). In 1997, Martha Siegel published a revised version entitled How to Make a Fortune on the Internet (ISBN 0-06-273466-0) under her name only.

In 1997, the Supreme Court of Tennessee disbarred Canter in part for illegal advertising practices. William W. Hunt III, of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, said at the time that he believed it was the first time a lawyer had been disciplined for Internet advertising practices.[6] Cybersell was dissolved by default in March 1998 after repeatedly failing to file annual reports or pay its incorporation fees.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Wired "The spam that started it all"
  2. ^ a b "Battle for the Soul of the Internet", Time Magazine, 25 July 1994
  3. ^ Sandberg, Jared (22 June 1994), "Phoenix Lawyers Irk Internet Users Again by Broadcasting Ad", Wall Street Journal
  4. ^ Gulbrandsen, Arnt (12 October 2009), Canter and Siegel: What actually happened
  5. ^ Flynn, Laurie (16 October 1994), "'Spamming' on the Internet", The New York Times
  6. ^ Craddock, Ashley (10 July 1997), "Spamming Lawyer Disbarred", Wired Magazine

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