November 26, 2003

Spam Me? Oh, Spam YOU!

Posted by shonk at 02:09 AM in Geek Talk | TrackBack

By now, I'm sure most of you have heard of the "spam rage" incident in which a guy threatened to kill and/or torture people working at a company that was sending him spam. Naturally, a lot of people have mixed feelings about this; although the ice pick and anthrax threats were a bit over the top, many identify with the guy's anger (this Samizdata post and associated comments provide a good example).

Those who think the solution to every problem is another law will be gratified to know that Congress just approved an anti-spam bill. One has to imagine, given that such proposals had been languishing for six years, that the "spam rage" incident may have had some impact on the bill's passage.

Of course, I'm highly cynical of anti-spam legislation for several reasons. First, because any time any form is speech is regulated, it makes me nervous. Though I find panhandlers, street-corner preachers and billboards annoying, I don't think they're doing anything fundamentally wrong and I'm not convinced spam is fundamentally different from a billboard or a request for spare change. The only major difference, as I see it, is that spam manifests itself onto my property (my computer), whereas panhandlers and billboards don't come inside my apartment. This is certainly an important difference, but at the same time I don't think inboxes can or should be guarded from intruders in the same way that one's residence is.

That, of course, is a debatable point, but what's not debatable is that this new law, once it's signed into law by GW in December, will not end or even seriously curtail spam. I mean, the DMCA's been around for a while and, last I checked, Kazaa wasn't going anywhere (or, if it is, it's because of competition from iTunes and Napster, not due to the DMCA). Instead, the solution to spam can only come from people changing the way they read e-mail in a way that makes spamming more costly than it is remunerative.

This is a point made recently over at Catallarchy, wherein one proposed method of making spam more expensive (literally) is that of David Friedman: each person would set a (probably small) price that people not on their "white list" would have to pay to send them e-mail. In other words, digital postage. The virtue of this approach is that, if accepted broadly, even very tiny per e-mail "postage" charges would make spamming unprofitable, while not greatly affecting the average e-mailer.

Another solution is that of Bayesian filtering which, despite the awkward name, is basically an algorithm which scans each incoming message and, based on a statistical analysis or its contents, decides whether it is spam or legitimate e-mail. The nice thing about Bayesian filtering is that it's completely personalized; its analysis is entirely based upon each person's identification of what is spam and what isn't. For example, I've never once received a legitimate e-mail containing the word "mortgage", so my Bayesian filter would key on that word in any incoming e-mail and (almost assuredly correctly) identify the e-mail as spam, whereas a realtor's filter would probably be inclined to accept e-mails containing the word "mortgage" (though it would likely still be able to differentiate the wheat from the chaff based on other clues). The disadvantage to this approach is that it requires a bit of time on the front end, but, as pointed out in the above-linked article, it is remarkably effective and can make producing spam that actually gets seen quite difficult.

There are, of course, other spam-killing schemes out there, but these two are the ones most appealing to my sensibilities. The first requires more of a global approach, as it would only be effective if broadly used, whereas the second can be effective for you even if nobody else adopts it. Either, though, has much higher potential, in my view, than legislation of making spam, if not a thing of the past, at least no more annoying than third-class mail.

Of course, the death of spam would dry up the source material of the surprisingly entertaining impromptu art of spam-baiting. Art, as they say, is the sister of misery.