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The Halifax Herald
Sunday, June 13, 1999

E-mail hoax travels the continent

by Kelly Shiers, kshiers@herald.ns.ca

Call it the great Canadian April Fool's Day joke.

Only it seems to have taken on an international life of its own.

At the end of March, The Sunday Herald warned people not to be taken in by an electronic message that was being sent computer-to-computer to rally users against a government proposed e-mail tax.

Lots of people thought the nickel surcharge on each e-mail (supposedly to bolster Canada Post coffers) could be true.

But it was a hoax.

"I imagine it wasn't really intended to deceive", says David Jones, a computer science professor at McMaster University who unsuccessfully tried to track down the source of the message, after getting so many inquiries about it.

Dr. Jones based his conclusion on the fact the message's first appearance came just in time for April Fool's Day, and that there were "so many clues". For example, the proposed bill is named 602 P, but federal legislation is not numbered that way. A quick check in the phone book verified that the people referred to in the message don't exist.

"It was just humour and art, in the way it was put together (but) these things take on a life of their own."

Do they ever.

In April, stories began to appear in Ontario and Quebec media about the hoax. One newspaper even reported the e-mail tax scheme as fact.

But while that seemed to be the end of the message here, it's been reincarnated south of the border and in most details, remains identical to its predecessor.

Even the major players are the same. Toronto lawyer Richard Stepp, who graciously agreed to work without pay to prevent the tax, is back, only this time as a Washington lawyer. Tony Schnell continues to be the bad man who has proposed an additional surcharge on Internet bills to help make up money lost because so many people use e-mail instead of regular mail. In the American message, this supposed Liberal backbencher has taken on the role of Republican congressman.

He's still a fake.

As a woman in Mississippi, who read the latest e-mail version, as well as the original Sunday Herald story, said, "This Schnell guy really gets around. Imagine him being in two places at once."

Dr. Jones said he recently heard a caller to a phone-in show on CNN ask about the proposed tax, and was told the message was a fake.

Believable hoaxes, he said, can reappear time and time again, since the Internet continues to attract new users all the time.

"Something the online community figured out was a hoax three years ago, (can suddenly reappear) ... with a whole new crop of gullible people."

Messages like this are just new versions of urban legends, which spread more quickly because computers send information - true or not - around the world, with a press of a button.

Dr. Jones said American author Mark Twain had the basic truth all figured out a century ago, long before anyone dreamed of a computer, when he said that a good lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is still putting on its shoes.


Copyright © 1999 by The Halifax Herald Limited. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.