1994: Lawyer Couple Invent New Internet 'Service' - Spamming

Martha Siegel and Laurence Canter advertised 'paperwork' services for potential emigrants to America - causing servers to crash as complaints piled in.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Laurence Canter at Internet conference, May 1, 2010.Credit: Sage Ross

On April 12, 1994, humanity experienced what may well have been the first mass mailing of a commercial message via Internet, when immigration lawyers Martha S. Siegel and Laurence A. Canter advertised their services to potential applicants for U.S. Green Card lotteries. Their message went out, via a discussion group network called Usenet, to subscribers of more than 5,000 message boards. Two months later, they followed that message up with another sent to about 1,000 news groups.

In today’s terms, the numbers of individuals reached would probably appear puny, but the transmission was quickly dubbed “spam,” the term used to refer to the digital version of junk mail.

Green cards, of course, are the visas distributed by the United States that allow foreign nationals to live and work there. Because demand far outstrips supply, each year the State Department holds a lottery to determine who will have preference in the competition. In the early 1990s, entering the lottery required little more than sending a postcard or letter with the applicant’s name and address to the State Department.

Siegel and Canter’s ad, which had the subject heading, “Green Card Lottery – Final One?” offered to handle the “paperwork” for applicants - for a fee of $95 for an individual and $145 for a couple.

As a result of the interest stimulated by the ad, according to Siegel and Canter, who were at the time partners in a Phoenix law firm and a married couple (and Jewish, according to the magazine Jewish Currents), they gained about 1,000 new clients, who yielded them $100,000 to $200,000.

Complaints crash the servers

Martha S. Siegel was born in New Jersey on April 9, 1948, and attended Carnegie-Mellon University. Laurence A. Canter was born June 24, 1953, and was a graduate of the University of Arizona. Both attended law school at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

The couple practiced immigration law together in Sarasota, Florida, but moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1978 after facing accusations of various ethical violations in Florida. In Canter’s case, he resigned from the Florida bar instead of having to defend himself against charges of “neglect, misrepresentation, misappropriation of client funds and perjury.” At the same time, Siegel also resigned, in protest of what she described as a “witch hunt” against her husband. (She had earlier, however, been found guilty together with him of misrepresenting their finances in connection with a real-estate loan they received.)

The 1994 spam mailing elicited a lot of anger among users of the still-young Internet, although it didn’t violate any laws. Canter and Siegel said they had alerted their service provider about their plans, and were assured that the company, Internet Direct, could handle the mailing and the hoped-for traffic it would drum up. In fact, the response received by Internet Direct, much of it in the form of complaints, crashed its servers, and the firm dropped Canter and Siegel as clients.

The couple was unapologetic, and soon gave up practicing law to set up a company called Cybersell to sell Internet-marketing services. In 1995, they co-wrote a manual, “How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway: Everyone’s Guerrilla Guide to Marketing on the Internet and Other On-line Services.”

Usable dog art

Martha Siegel and Laurence Canter divorced in 1996. Siegel died on September 24, 2000, but Canter went from strength to strength. By the time he was disbarred in 1997 - for disreputable advertising practices - in Tennessee, where he had originally been admitted to the bar, he was living in the San Francisco Bay area and writing software for stock-options traders.

In 2012, Canter established an online shop, called “DoggyLips.com,” to sell “usable dog art” – such items as coffee mugs, soap dispensers and placemats with pictures of dogs and other animals. As he explained on another site that offers his dog paintings, “After years of changing careers, from lawyer, to author, to publisher, to software engineer, to internet analytic consultant to ... I finally found my true calling in life.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: