Doing Bad by Doing Good

I use a spam filter for my email. The reason I do is that my email address has been the same since 1994, and my previous email addresses still forward to the new email address. Back in those pre-commercial Internet days, sharing one’s email address was no big deal. Actually, it was encouraged. People were associated with a particular email address in Usenet discussions and email mailing lists, which represented most of the watering holes on the Internet.

Unfortunately, as time went on, spammers appeared and then, those spammers started looking to Usenet when harvesting email addresses. This quickly turned into a nightmare as users like myself were faced with few choices: abandon email addresses that were used for a very long time, use spam filtering, or learn to live with a mailbox where more messages are spam than actual messages.

However, I never considered the darker side of the problem. Apparently, a number of spam filters are starting to go beyond their original mission an filter legitimate messages. This is where it gets difficult: I hate spam but I also hate suppression of speech. By willingly letting an outside party filter my mail for me, I could be keeping messages from myself.

This represents an interesting conundrum. How does one ensure that the spam-filters are honest? Maybe there needs to be an extra level of policing in terms of keeping those filters honest. But the problem then becomes that if the filters publish how they filter mail, the spammers will use the information to subvert the filtering. And thus things will get worse.

One option would be a common agreement between providers to list the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of spammer in a central database that would be open to all. In this system, information about a spammer would be revealed. ISPs would openly publish information about a spam account (after all, every spam can be traced to an IP address, every IP address to a service provider, and somehow, every service provider can probably find some linkage to a credit card or other payment info for the service). The issue here begins, however, when one is trying to send something anonymously (because, for example, they live in a country with a repressive government). The kind of tracking I’m highlighting ends up being a bad solution in those cases.

The next option is to fight at the source. Make it illegal to sell an email address. If you do so, and set up a high price (let’s say something in the order of $100,000 per email address), you then criminalize the business of spamming. But the idea of a policy on this also needs to have some teeth so it will need to be backed up with some indictments. I’m not sure of how this could be enforced (maybe a high price, as well as time in prison for selling more than XXX number of addresses). Another way to do this would be to tax the sale of an email address and the sending of unsolicited commercial email.

This might go to the core of what makes spam so tempting. So far, spammers and their supporters have said that the reason they use spam is because it is much cheaper to do so than any other form of marketing. Let’s make it so expensive that it no longer makes sense. Proceed from the spam tax would go to improving the network and promoting its use, or research related to better enforcement of other Internet crimes (fraud, spam, etc…) It could be the beginning of something great!

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