When Tom Kalil of the National Economic Council made a list of the Top 10 things the White House likes about the Internet, Dave Farber came in seventh. Wired magazine calls Farber “the Paul Revere of the Digital Revolution,” and prominent Philadelphian Leonore Annenberg pronounced him “terribly interesting,” even after he showed up at a formal dinner in a jogging suit.
The rumpled University of Pennsylvania telecommunications professor finds them all terribly interesting too. Farber runs the “Interesting People” Internet mailing list. Drawing on a worldwide network of tipsters, the self-described “tech-no-yenta” keeps top techies in business, government and academia updated on each others’ doings with several e-mails a day. Farber, who claims 25,000 subscribers, generally doesn’t tout the bigwigs on his list, but he cites Intel CEO Andy Grove as a subscriber. Many of them wouldn’t have careers if not for the 62-year-old computer scientist, who helped build the government and academic networks that became the Internet. Farber, a married father of two, began the free mailing list nine years ago at the request of his friend Erich Bloch, then director of the National Science Foundation. “It grew and grew,” says Farber, who now takes all comers, to a point. “If I think a person is not going to be interesting,” he says, “I say ‘You’ve got the wrong list, so go away’ ”
You have mail” were once the most welcome three little words in cyberspace. That was before computer mailboxes started being flooded with junk e-mail touting get-rich-quick schemes and miracle cures—up to a dozen such messages a day for some people. Such so-called spam, named after a Monty Python sketch in which the word is shouted ad nauseum, is now America Online’s top user complaint. The problem, explains AOL lawyer David Phillips, is that users pay for the time it takes to erase it. “It’s as if a telemarketer could call you collect,” says Phillips.
AOL and Cyber Promotions, a much vilified Philadelphia firm that sends ads to more than a million computer users for as little as $59, will face off over the legality of junk e-mail in federal court this month. Meanwhile, CompuServe and Prodigy have their own suits pending against Cyber Promotions. But almost everyone thinks the ultimate solution will be technology perhaps something like the program AOL unveiled last month that lets users block incoming spam.
By forcing Netizens to choose between two of their ideals—privacy and free speech—the junk e-mail issue has sparked the hottest online debate since last spring’s censorship wars. The result? “Our business has gone up exponentially,” brags Cyber Promotions founder Sanford Wallace.