Saturday, December 27, 2008


Anti-spam vs free speech

In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, writer James McGrath Morris looks at the fight against spam with an eye toward its effect on free speech:

Spam was once a simple annoyance. But its exponential growth — reports suggest that about 90 percent of all e-mail is spam — has led e-mail users to build daunting ramparts to block unwanted messages and companies to circulate blacklists of alleged spammers. One cannot fault people for seeking ways to avoid unwanted or aggressive solicitations, but the consequences of some anti-spam measures may not be what the people seeking protection from spam had in mind. Some efforts to block unwanted e-messages are threatening free speech on the Internet.

Mr Morris’s essay leans in a particular direction, of course: as a writer, he cares more about getting his message across than he does about keeping people’s inboxes clean and usable. So take his column with a grain or two of salt. But don’t over-season it, either, because he has a valid point.

Your right to free speech ends at my door — or, in the e-case, my electronic mailbox. You have a right to make your opinion available to me, but you don’t have a right to force me to hear it, to see it, to read it. Turned around, that means that I have the right to refuse to accept it into my inbox. I have a right to use spam filters that might disallow your message, even if it’s a false positive — that is, even if your message is collateral damage of the war.

But when Mr Morris strikes a chord is when he addresses the spam filters that are not under your control, but are run on your behalf by your service provider — often without your knowledge, input, or acceptance. Users of services such as Gmail and Yahoo mail, for example, have their mail filtered for them, and they cannot turn it off or adjust its operation. By receiving your mail through such services, you agree to this, and you accept that you might “lose” messages that you’d actually want, but that have been classified as spam because they contain phrases such as those Mr Morris mentions:

The inclusion of “young adult,” “getting nasty” and “hot” among the thousands of words in my publication was like poison. Indiscriminate spam-blocking software would spot those words, ignore the context and group my newsletter with unsolicited e-mails from purveyors of smut.

Such messages are shunted off to a “Spam” or “Junk” folder, which you might or might not check from time to time — likely not, if you don’t keep on top of it, because the task gets too daunting as the size of the folder grows beyond the scope of a brief glance. Unless you know you’ve missed something, and thus know what you’re looking for, you’re not likely to find it in the mess of misleading missives designed to say, “Open me!

To be sure, some spam filters are better than others, and there’s lots of spam-blocking software out there that’s better than “indiscriminate”. That said, when one doesn’t configure and run the software oneself, one doesn’t have control of the discrimination. And any anti-spam software, no matter how discriminating, will have “false positives” — those messages that are incorrectly classified as spam. Those messages that Mr Morris worries about.

So, yes, writers start thinking about that, and alter the way they write things to accommodate it. At the same time, of course, so do the spammers. The result looks like a tug-of-war contest, with Mr Morris and his compatriots pulling on one end of the rope, spammers pulling on the other, and a deep pile of mud in the middle. In the end, some of Mr Morris’s team will wind up in the mud.

The problem is that if we don’t filter what we think is probably spam, our inboxes will look, all of them, like that spam folder does now, and Mr Morris’s newsletters, and other messages like them, will be lost, invisible, unfindable, free speech and all. It does little good to orate from one’s soap box on the corner, when the traffic noise completely drowns one out.

It’s easy to blame the spammers — it is their fault that we are where we are with this, after all. But pointing at them doesn’t help solve the problem. They deserve the blame, but it does us no good to place it there. Instead, we just have to keep working on anti-spam technology, getting our “hit rate” up and our “false positive rate” ever lower.

We aren’t going to win the war as long as spam is cheap — bordering on free — to send. The business model that supports spam is just too strong. We can just keep making our weapons sharper, and understand that there’ll be collateral damage.

1 comment:

Simon said...

I don't know about Yahoo! mail, but as a Gmail user, I feel that I have some control about how mail is filtered; firstly, they only put alleged spam messages in a special folder, from where I can "remove it forever" or re-mark them as "not spam". And while I had some false positives during the first few months of using Gmail, I haven't noticed any for the past year or so - and I think I look through the "Spam" folder relatively thoroughly.