In celebration of Ray Tomlinson sending the first-ever networked email 50 years ago today - and introducing the '@' symbol convention - one Spamhaus Project researcher looks back into the archives to when spam fighting was 100% manual. Alex shares when they blocked the whole of Italy, and unbelievably, nobody wanted to do anything to fix it! Not until one government official complained he couldn’t email his mistress…

Spam storm surge

No kidding, there I was, with my finger on the button to block the domain ““, which at the time – 2001 – was used by Telecom Italia for ALL business customers. The Italian domain was generating a significant portion of the millions of daily “This Is Spam” complaints from the user base of 34 million AOL had then, and it was getting completely out of hand. We had a mandate to reduce user-generated complaints by 95% by the end of that year, so something had to be done immediately.

Hello? Is anybody out there?

The spam was originating from IPs that used the rDNS ““. I had spent a couple of months trying to contact someone in charge of this domain, with no luck at all. I wrote emails. I made phone calls. Occasionally these were answered, but they always got transferred to a line that then rang out. I could not get anyone to pay attention and the spam tide was rising, so I asked management if I could take the nuclear option, and they said “yes.”

Ready, Aim, FIRE!

I took a deep breath and pulled the trigger, expecting an immediate explosion…but to my surprise, I was met with thunderous silence. I had anticipated a frantic email or a panicked phone call making its way to me the next day, but that didn’t happen. These were an entire nation’s business customers, right? Surely this would cause some problems? Apparently not! A month passed, during which my mother called me from Italy and asked why she could not email her Italian mother’s AOL account. At that point, I admitted that I had essentially blocked Italy from sending email to AOL, and suggested she call Nonna instead.

Extramarital pressure

I waited some more. Another three weeks went by, and finally, my phone rang. On the other end of the line was a very agitated young man from Telecom Italia who told me that the mayor of his city had called him. The mayor had demanded he drop everything and fix the issue immediately, because the mayor needed to email his mistress – seriously!

Feedback loop to the rescue

AOL had recently developed a feedback mechanism by which they could – after mutual agreement – send a copy of a user-generated spam complaint back to the originating network. This would allow their abuse desks to locate and terminate the source of the spam. So when this guy called, I explained the problem and offered to set up a feedback loop for him.

He said there was no way he could make that work, but called the following day again to plead his case. We went around like this for a few days. Exasperated, I finally told him that I was coming to Italy to visit my grandmother the next week and could drop by his office in Rome to discuss it in person if he liked. He was horrified and declined.

I waited some more. Eventually, they caved, of course, and we set up the feedback loop. Over the next few years, we developed an excellent working relationship, and their spam problem declined remarkably. To this day, my mom calls me when she has problems sending email and asks me if I blocked whatever random country. No, Mom, not anymore. The machines do that for us now!

What’s your most memorable email anecdote?

These moments to come together and share stories of times gone by are rare – never more so than now. So, to celebrate sending email over a network being 50 years old, join the community in sharing your most interesting email stories and connect using the hashtags #QWERTYUIOP and #50yrsofemail


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