July 17, 2003
The silver lining to spam
Interesting post by Phil Wolff, who has an interesting blog, on whether spam is to the EFF what the KKK was to the ACLU. The ACLU defended the KKK on principle, despite probably loathing them. Should the EFF defend spam on principle, despite probably loathing it?
There is a lot of fast and loose talk about regulating spam--countless bills are floating around our congress. Just read Jason's comment to my opposition to regulating spam for a taste of the certainty that many feel that something must be done--and by that many mean a centrally planned solution. The problem is obvious to many: email works just fine, we just need to fix spam. But the problem is that regulating speech and behavior--even nasty behavior of people trying to *gasp* sell stuff--is something that ought to be done with great, great care and only if the solution is better than the problem--and regulation is the last and only resort. In the words of Robert Conquest: "…it is not enough to show that a situation is bad; it is also necessary to be reasonably certain that the problem has been properly described, fairly certain that the proposed remedy will improve it, and virtually certain that it will not make it worse."
But has the problem been properly described? If it is worth defending the KKK to preserve a principle, we had better be sure that we've thought this through very, very carefully. I think we might be getting the problem wrong: the problem isn't spam, it's email.
We often talk about security in technology and a system that it not secure--vulnerable to hacking--is a bad system. Sure hacking can be bad, but it's a reality. Spam is in a sense a form of hacking--an abuse of a system made possible by that system's vulnerability. We can blame the abusers, but that is a form of denial. You don't leave your car unlocked and the keys in the ignition--and if you did, would you blame the police for your car getting stolen?
But don't take that metaphor too far: car theft should be illegal. But speech? (Yes, email is speech.)
Spam is a huge problem, and it is a big enough problem that we ought to be asking what's wrong with the email system, not with spammers. The solution is not to criminalize speech but to fix the system. We ought to be looking at spam as a huge telltale sign that there is a need (and opportunity!) to fix the system and the pressure created by the problem is what a great entrepreneurial opportunity (opportunities!) is made of.
Now, I know what you are thinking: spam blocking technologies don't or won't work (or you are thinking they do work and have already been and are being created.) But I'm not talking about spam blocking, I'm talking about the whole system of email. After all, email is not the end-all, be-all and has only been with us in mass form for a relatively short time. Perhaps it's not done evolving.
IM is an example of an evolution. There are multiple social networks popping up with messaging components (Ryze, Friendster, etc.). And read Phil Wolff's thoughts on how RSS and email may blend together. There is no spam in RSS aggregation because the user defines the data it wants to aggregate (pull v. push).
I don't know what the answer is. No single person knows. And that's the point. We could be wrong about the spam problem. We could be criminalizing speech unnecessarily and uselessly (most of my spam comes from dethroned princes in Nigeria anyway who probably don't follow the US criminal code that closely.) And my guess is that spam regulation will follow most other examples of tech regulation: the problem gets solved by industry before the regulators get their act together (and the regulations will simply be putting up barriers and infringing on freedom needlessly.)
We are spending too much time blaming spammers and not enough time learning the lesson that the spam problem is trying to teach us. We should be evolving email and, while evolution is a process of trial and error--hard to predict and impossible to plan--riches abound for those who figure it out.