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« Guest Posting -- Salingaros on Tschumi | Main | Spending Time in Bruegelville »

March 01, 2004

Spam Musings

Dear Friedrich --

Good lord, but the flow of information on the Internet is filling up with crap. To use this blog as an example:


  • In our blog's mailbox, we receive around 75 pieces of junk for every legit email.
  • Every few weeks, blizzards of spam comments glom onto our postings. I weed them out, and am diligent about banning offending IP's -- I've now banned more than 130 IP's. Nonetheless, every few weeks spam comments barrel in from a new set of IP's.
  • That button in our left-hand column called "Our Last 50 Referrers"? It's a nice feature. Click on it, and you can see the sites where visitors have clicked through from. It's a way to learn about who's linked to us, and a wonderful way to learn about other blogs. Well, that feature is the latest one to fall victim to spam-esque assaults. Nearly half of the sites that show up as referrers are bogus -- outright porn sites, or innocent-seeming Blogspot sites that, when clicked on, wrench you into a hell of popups and endlessly-cycling windows, with no way to put an end to it but to shut down your browser.

It's a nightmare. A small and manageable nightmare so far, although I'm not thrilled about the hours I've lost picking through trash email and cleaning out spam comments. We pay a monthy fee to our blog's host; now we're paying yet more in terms of the time we spend defending ourselves against spam and quasi-spam. And it's getting worse; the Economist recently reported that spam now accounts for close to 60% of all email traffic. Do you have any sense of what's likely to happen?

A few questions:


  • Spam-commenters spend tons of money buying up IP's, right? Which must mean that they make enough money from scattering spam comments to justify the expense, right? But how do they make money from scattering spam comments?
  • What's going to happen when spammers start attaching video files to their emails? If the 'net is clogged now, how clogged will it be then?
  • Let me see if I'm getting this right: Natural understandings, restraints and arrangements -- costs, weight, physical material -- repress and oppress us, and the Internet sets us free of them. But there's no Internet without spam. To defend ourselves against it, we now have to develop new forms of restraint and control. But this time around we don't get to rely on what's unspoken and passed along. Instead, we have to consciously design these new arrangements; they have to be explicit. And because they'll inevitably have the quality of puzzles, and because some maniac will always be trying to crack these puzzles ... Well, we're stuck in an endless arms race, right? Is my reasoning off here?
  • Do spammers argue that they're exercising their freedom of speech? That would seem to raise the question of cost. For example: it costs the spammer next to nothing to exercise his freedom of speech by adding my name to his list. But it costs me plenty -- in terms of time, effort and what I guess I might call emotional anguish -- to attend to what he bombards me with. It seems to me that that means that he's offloading the cost of his freedom of speech onto me -- that I'm paying so he can speak. There's something clearly wrong with that. But what can be done about it? I'm fascinated as well by the way that life on the 'net seems to raise the question of who pays for freedom of speech. Has this been noticed or discussed before?
  • Which brings up the convenience factor. One of the great appeals of the online universe is its seeming convenience; at first encounter, it seems to be a libertarian paradise. Things whiz and whirl. After a while, though, the disadvantages become apparent. Online life is disorienting. Computers force things into consciousness, not all of which are welcome there. The Web opens up scads of new opportunities for new kinds of misbehavior. And life online is both seductive and addictive, a dangerous combo. I for one find it scary that businesses have made so many of their processes dependent on electronic communications. Why? Because if spam-and-such jam the 'net to the point where it crashes, what's going to become of the economy? It won't be very convenient for anyone if the economy tanks.
  • Does the question of spam highlight the drawbacks of dogmatic libertarianism? I may be going off half-cocked here, but I think it might. In the material world, there's a standard way to deal with much bad behavior. You pass a law against it, you hire people to enforce the law. and you get on with life, provided you can live with complications and imperfect results. In the libertarian paradise that is the electronic world, things go "whoosh" in a way many people seem to think is swell. But the dealing-with-misbehavior thing is a serious, new-style headache. It seems that life online can mean being stuck forever attending to negotiations, to pricing and standards disputes, and to technological arms races. Who exactly is it who finds this desirable, let alone preferable?

Back when spam comments started appearing, some fellow bloggers were kind enough to instruct lame-o me in how to ban badguy IP's. I'm hoping to get lucky again. Do any bloggers less inept than I am know if anything can be done to prevent creeps from clogging up Our Last 50 Referrers?

Best,

Michael

UPDATE: People who enjoy thinking about the pros and cons of libertarianism should enjoy this Reason magazine-sponsored debate, here. David Friedman, Richard Epstein, Randy Barnett and James Pinkerton give the topic their best. Henry Farrell's Crooked Timber posting here about James Scott's Hayekian book "Seeing Like a State" is also well worth a wrestle. Don't miss the lively comments on the posting.

posted by Michael at March 1, 2004




Comments

"How do they make money from scattering spam comments?"

They are gaming the search engines. The referrer URLs in your last 50 referrers are links, and the search engines use the number of inbound links extensively in their ranking algorithms. The spammer's game is to garner increased traffic by showing up higher in search engine results. Some very small percentage of traffic gained in this way translates into sales, which is how they make money. Search engine ranking is critical to their business model as it's the only way they have to drive traffic to their sites.

Finding ways to recognize spam and penalize it in the ranking algorithm is very important to the search engines. But as their techniques improve, the spammers also find new ways to get around them. It's an arms race there, too.

Posted by: mg on March 1, 2004 10:42 PM



I would love to hear far more comment upon the disease of Libertarianism from intelligent commentators.

Far from tangential, the behavioral effects of repudiating culture and social structure in favour of "negotiation" needs to come out in he open... from flippant accounting practices (catch me if you can) to running stop signs in SUVs (let the cretins stop so I don't have to), the cult of Libertarianism is prime for exposure.

Posted by: The Hanged Man on March 1, 2004 11:22 PM



Don't use email for blogs. Email is done. Protect your email address. BEWARE of who you give it out to and have more than one address to shake the spammers (as-best-as you can.) A static email address simply won't work. We've lost email to the spammers.

Change the email address you both use on the blog frequently (daily or weekly) so you can get rid of the spam that you will get. You can then use a more spam free email address to communicate with those you WANT to email. As you can see, I use an email address created by my RSS aggregator. If it gets spammed I can delete it and get a new one. ITS NO FUN DELETEING SPAM.


Posted by: Ken Dreyfuss on March 1, 2004 11:39 PM



The trackback method might be a solution for blog referrals.

See a bsic explanation @ http://www.movabletype.org/trackback/beginners/

Posted by: Ken Dreyfuss on March 2, 2004 12:54 AM



A Libertarian might point out that the federal government has already passed a tough law against spammers -- and that spamming has managed to get worse since the law went into effect.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 2, 2004 02:08 AM



To paraphrase Churchill:

Never have so few screwed up so much for so many.

On the political front, what astounds me is that there is, at least so far, so little governmental activity in cyberspace. And although in many ways I'm kind of a libertarian guy, I don't see how--given the financial incentives facing ISPs and the rest of the Web-players, how anything less than a governmental mandate is going to get us to reconsider certain historical choices made in designing the Internet (like the e-mail protocol that is so easily gamed).

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2004 04:46 AM



That discussion at Reason should be interesting but of-so-abstract and with so few (any?) examples that I found it useless.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 2, 2004 01:08 PM



I've never understood the free speech defense of spam. If I can put a "no soliciting" sign on my front door without anyone suggesting I am infringing upon the free speech rights of door-to-door salesmen, why can't I put a "no spam" sign on my email box and expect to have it respected by the law? Spammers are not exercising their free speech rights; they are violating my property rights.

I recognize that in the borderless world of the Internet, it will always be difficult to enforce "no spam" injunctions, but how can anyone even suggest an effort to do so is unAmerican?

Posted by: John Hinchey on March 2, 2004 01:22 PM



mg, are you saying that there are people in the internet world who have received so little penis enlargement information that they actually SEARCH for it?! Wow!

Posted by: Dente on March 2, 2004 02:52 PM



On the political front, what astounds me is that there is, at least so far, so little governmental activity in cyberspace.

I am astounded, too -- but in a good way.

So Friedrich, are you advocating massive government regulation of a technology that changes hourly? We'd need Congress in session 24/7, passing new laws every ten minutes to keep up with the technology. (Never mind, too, all those nasty international ramifications of "clamping down" on the World Wide Web -- even the mullahs of Iran can't do it, and if Iran can't do it ... well, why would we even want to try over here?) Or would you simply have government "own" cyberspace, the way it "owns" the airwaves, or the air itself?

BTW, that sudden rumbling beneath your feet isn't an earthquake, it's just our dear Hayek turning in his grave yet again. For my part, I suspecct that when spamming becomes a clear and present danger to profitability, the market will devise solutions to it more rapidly and more effectively than a bloated government could. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, it has come up with a few solid ideas already.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 2, 2004 04:29 PM



Michael: The solution is using a Bayesian filter to judge each comment and the page to which it links. If the spam score of either is too high, the comment is dumped. It's automated, it creates very very few false positives... it's The Answer.

http://paulgraham.com/spam.html (if you ignore the tech stuff, you can still get the jist of it.)

http://paulgraham.com/sofar.html (a less-technical follow-up)

http://paulgraham.com/ffb.html (where Paul decribes and ponders the key innovation of having the filter follow links. Entertaining.)

Posted by: Ethan Herdrick on March 2, 2004 04:53 PM



Mr. Hulsey:

I'm not recommending that the government get involved, I'm just surprised that it hasn't.

Purely on a practical level, however, in the war between commercial, technical defenses and the spammers, I would point out that the spammers are clearly winning. Hopefully that will change in the future.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2004 06:05 PM



I should add to my comment above by saying that I don't know if any of the blog hosting services have this sort of bayesian filtering yet. You'll have to ask yours, or if you self-host, find the appropriate code module.
If it's not available yet, don't worry, it's coming.

Posted by: Ethan Herdrick on March 2, 2004 06:14 PM



I've been happy with a challenge-response filter called knowspam.net. They have a bit of a social engineering problem, namely, not everyone who mails in understands or answers the challenge, creating another kind of false positive, but it's easy enough to wave them through if you check the holding bin once a day. Since I installed it last July it has blocked 12,000 spams for me. I also try to educate: when people ask for my e-mail address I send them this link.

Speaking of the arms race, it seems like one way to retaliate to comments spam and some e-mail spam would be to write a program that goes to the offending sites and places thousands of bogus orders on their order forms. Which they will then have to filter. I'm concerned that we are entering the Disinformation Age.

Posted by: Franklin on March 3, 2004 08:08 AM



"But it costs me plenty -- in terms of time, effort and what I guess I might call emotional anguish -- to attend to what he bombards me with. It seems to me that that means that he's offloading the cost of his freedom of speech onto me -- that I'm paying so he can speak. There's something clearly wrong with that. But what can be done about it? I'm fascinated as well by the way that life on the 'net seems to raise the question of who pays for freedom of speech."

You ask if anyone has discussed this before. I don't think the discussion of pornography, and XXX-rated theaters, and zoning laws, was ever about anything else! It just appears this type of freedom of speech annoys you, whereas the other doesn't. Just depends on who's ox is being gored, I guess.

Posted by: annette on March 3, 2004 10:54 AM



For my part, I suspect that when spamming becomes a clear and present danger to profitability, the market will devise solutions to it more rapidly and more effectively than a bloated government could.

By no means. It could simply mean that in the absence of government regulation and enforcement, certain services are no longer viable, or are viable in a vastly curtailed form.

If there were no highway laws, the free market could protect a few people by selling them tanks, but it would certainly mean that highway traffic would be an significantly reduced.

(Pet peeve: Why are governments always 'bloated'? Aren't they doing the job that the electors have appointed them to do? Is GM bloated for having lots of employees? IBM? Governing is a big job in a big country. Of course it's big!)

Posted by: Tom West on March 3, 2004 04:59 PM



==
Probably been said and justly disregarded but it seems a solution to e-mail spam (internet roaches) problem is to have the default settings of e-mail as "no access" and from there, the recipient would allow correspondence to allowed addresses, always retaining the default setting if correspondence degenerated into spam. This would require participation on the part of the servers yet, seeing as the attempt to block spam via addresses appears an ongoing, infinite, dynamic it might be more successful to start from the other side of the spectrum. Potentially sacrificing spontaneity with the reward of maintaining functionality.

The comparison with meatspace junkmail doesn't quite meld because of the higher costs of sending junkmail in the meatspace world (although still a nuisance).

Posted by: reader on March 4, 2004 02:20 PM



"I don't think the discussion of pornography, and XXX-rated theaters, and zoning laws, was ever about anything else! It just appears this type of freedom of speech annoys you, whereas the other doesn't. Just depends on who's ox is being gored, I guess."

Well Annette, there is an important difference between spam and these other media. Pornography, strip bars, and x-rated theaters are not delivered to your mailbox. If they are, then like spam, it's a violation of rights issue. I have the right to my personal freedom and a right to keep others out of it.


"I would love to hear far more comment upon the disease of Libertarianism from intelligent commentators."

Well Hanged Man, you obviously don't like libertarianism. But don't displace your anger caused by spam on something totally unrelated. Any intelligent Libertarian, like myself, who strongly advocates individual freedoms and civil rights will make the clear case that we have a right to block strangers from overloading our private lives with unwanted advertisements. Obviously the civil rights or freedom-of-speech rights of spammers are not the issue here. The libertarians concern would rather be the protection of the spam recipients' rights.

Posted by: g coviello on April 18, 2004 12:37 PM






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