J. D. Falk: 1974-2011

Yesterday, after a year-long struggle with stomach cancer, J.D. Falk — one of the giants in the anti-spam, email, and Internet world — died, sadly at just 37 years of age.

I “knew” J.D. in the mid-1990s as somebody I chatted with on the Internet’s original bulletin board system, Usenet, and then on various mailing lists, most of them for a small group of people. This group wanted to help the Internet’s transition from a non-profit network for academic and research institutions to a network for everybody. One of the common concerns was to protect the best parts of early Internet culture — the freedom with which people discussed ideas and collaborated — from the worst parts of wider culture. In other words, we all wanted to civilize the raving hordes (AOL users and the like) at the gate. 🙂

One thoroughly obnoxious bit of the wider culture — aggressive, high-pressure advertising — manifested itself on the Internet as unsolicited bulk email and unsolicited off-topic postings to the Usenet. Due to the ability of these unsolicited and unwanted advertising emails and off-topic posts to drown out useful conversation, and because all of us were Monty Python fans, such email and posts came to be called “spam”. The problem of spam caught J.D.’s attention. He spent much of the rest of his life fighting it.

Unlike entirely too many people, J.D. believed in fighting smart instead of fighting dirty. He learned to understand the largely alien (to geeks) worldviews of many of those who sent spam and could see nothing wrong with it. He looked for points of agreement and, when he found them, used them to help forge a consensus on appropriate use of bulk email on the Internet. Largely because of his efforts and those of a small group of other people, today it is widely accepted that bulk email can legitimately be sent only to those who ask for it in advance. The laws in many places require opt-in. Even where they do not, internet service providers and companies insist upon it and block advertisers who don’t comply. It is largely thanks to J.D.’s efforts and those of a few other people that email remains a viable means of communication today instead of being drowned by spam.

Here are a few other tributes to J.D. by people who worked with him and knew him:

There’s also a memorial web site at jdfalkmemorial.org, where people can post condolences, tributes, and memories. It appears quite busy.

After early efforts in anti-spam and a short-lived attempt ten years ago to build a new and better Usenet, I fell largely out of touch with J.D. I had always assumed that I would fall back in touch when we happened to find ourselves working on the same project again. I’m so sorry that this will not happen now.

Rest in peace, J.D.

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