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Spam "protection" - a modest proposal

By Seth Finkelstein in Technology
Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 08:09:07 PM EST
Tags: Humour (all tags)

April 1 2002

The problem of Spam, i.e. junk e-mail, has been plaguing the net for years. This article makes a modest proposal for spam "protection", in terms of a novel economic analysis leading to the benefit of all concerned.

Sponsor: rusty
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...because it's waiting for your ad. So why are you still reading this? Come on, get going. Read the story, and then get an ad. Alright stop it. I'm not going to say anything else. Now you're just being silly. STOP LOOKING AT ME! I'm done!
comments (24)
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In economic terms, let's consider why there's profit in spamming (sending large numbers of unsolicited emails). This is due to the "cost-shifting" nature of the spam process. It takes very little effort to send a large number of e-mails. But e-mail is not free (as in beer). In effect, the spammer shifts the expense of the advertising campaign, from the seller, onto ISPs and users:
  1. The ISP must pay (in resources) to distribute the spammer's ads
  2. The user must pay (in time) to delete the spammer's ads
So this is, literally, the price of free (as in speech) speech - the ISP and the user must bear the costs of the spammer's ads. Now, a frequent "technological solution" is that, once the ISP has paid to handle the spammer's mail, the user can avoid the further payment of time, by paying cash to another organization, which will perform the task of sorting out the spam. This approach is exemplified by services offered by, for example, Brightmail Inc. or SpamCop Email System.

But what does this sorting organization do? Its only task is to try to identify spam from real mail. That is, it is paid to try to identify mail sent from spammers. However, since it is in an adversary relationship to the spammers, the spam-gangs have every reason to try to avoid such identification.

There have been some proposals to facilitate identification of spam by legally requiring labels. But that involves government and law. In fact, it's compelled speech! Instead, since the free market is the solution to all problems, the only proper course of action is to provide spammers with an economic incentive to identify themselves. After all, spam identification is the exact product being sold by third parties, so why pay a middle-man? If one is going to pay, for maximum market efficiency, why not pay the source?

In this scheme, the user pays a mailbox "protection fee" to an umbrella group, let's call it the "Spamafia". In return for this "protection", the "Spamafia" provides the user with a simple mailbox checking system which can be run over mail messages. Because this system works in a manner akin to passing items over a net barrier, it might be termed a "racket". So, the "racket" tests each piece of mail. Those mail messages which originate from members of the Spamafia each contain a certification token. In the process of testing the mail, this token is sent back to the Spamafia, and so redeemed to the individual spammer for a small fee, say a penny or so. In return, the user is given assurance that this message is certified as spam, and so can be automatically deleted without fear of losing legitimate mail. In essence, the spammer is given an incentive to also obtain a small amount of money from each smart user by being straightforward, rather than only trying to obtain a larger amount of money by fooling just a few suckers (and annoying everyone else).

The beauty of the system is that everyone has an incentive to participate. The spammers get more money, as the spams can generate income now from both the suckers, and the nonsuckers paying mailbox protection fees. There's no reason to evade spam-detection, in fact the opposite. The more people signed up to the protection racket, the more certification tokens are redeemed. The smart users get to have a workable mailbox, rather than one filled with junk. And they have the "peace of mind" that the mail being deleted is not important. It's the magic of the market at work.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


I deal with spam by
o just hitting "delete" (many times ...) 39%
o personal programmed mail sorting 30%
o paying for third-party mail sorting 1%
o suing spammers 1%
o personal violence on spammers 12%
o paying for third-party violence on spammers 13%

Votes: 173
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Spam
o Brightmail Inc.
o SpamCop Email System
o identify mail sent from spammers
o spam-gangs
o proposals
o free market is the solution to all problems
o Also by Seth Finkelstein

Display: Sort:
Spam "protection" - a modest proposal | 67 comments (42 topical, 25 editorial, 0 hidden)
Spam Cannot Be Reduced (3.62 / 8) (#4)
by DesiredUsername on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 08:35:45 AM EST

I hate spam. I get hundreds of offers for penis and breast enlargments and only a few are intriguing. I wish there was a way to stem the flood.

Unfortunately, if you examine the problem from an information-theoretical viewpoint you'll find that that is impossible. Shannon's basic theorem was that noise is a property of communication. When you communicate, you have noise as a byproduct no matter what you do. Email is communication, spam is the noise. Web traffic is communication, popups are the noise. Slashdot is communication, trolls and crapflooders are the noise.

One possibility for a solution is to reduce the communication itself via filters. For instance, some central agency could set up a computer to monitor all communication and delete targetted email messages or web traffic. As an act of communication-reduction this would guarantee at least a small amount of relief from noise. That's why I support Ashcroft in his plan to set the FBI up with Carnivore.

Play 囲碁

intriguing? (5.00 / 5) (#10)
by stfrn on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 09:17:26 AM EST

I hate spam. I get hundreds of offers for penis and breast enlargments and only a few are intriguing.

uh-huh... and exactly what do those intriging ones say? Enlarge your penis breasts??? i don't wanna know. :-P

[ Parent ]

which ones? (3.00 / 1) (#63)
by wbaseley on Fri Apr 05, 2002 at 11:57:07 AM EST

Which penis and breast enlargement cream spams do you find appealing? Enquiring minds want to know.

[ Parent ]
Funny article, but (4.14 / 7) (#11)
by CaptainSuperBoy on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 09:39:24 AM EST

Yeah yeah, I know it's April 1 and I should lighten up.. but that "Critiques of Libertarianism" page is utter crap. Exemplified in #23 in the FAQ, the author uses the popular logical form, 'P is true because I say it is'. Observe:
"self government" is the peculiar notion that other people ought not to be able to regulate your behavior. Much as we would like to be free of such regulation, most people also want to be able to regulate the behavior of others for practical reasons. Some libertarians claim that they want the first so much, that they will be willing to forgo the second. Most other people feel that both are necessary (and that it would be hypocritical or stupid to want just one.)
This is coming from the same guy who extensively links to common logical fallacies. Basically, we're all in favor of self-government but actually we're not in favor of self-government because he says so.

jimmysquid.com - I take pictures.
Wow (3.42 / 7) (#17)
by Ken Pompadour on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 12:11:47 PM EST

It took you to Part #23 to find a chink in his logic? Boy, do Libertarians suck.

...The target is countrymen, friends and family... they have to die too. - candid trhurler
[ Parent ]
You insulted libertarians! You evil statist! -NT- (5.00 / 2) (#20)
by CaptainSuperBoy on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 12:19:23 PM EST

jimmysquid.com - I take pictures.
[ Parent ]
Blah (3.33 / 3) (#21)
by The Littlest Hobo on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 12:23:51 PM EST

I have been trolled

[ Parent ]
Anti-anti-libertarian FAQs (4.50 / 2) (#23)
by Ken Arromdee on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 01:17:04 PM EST

You might want to see this criticism of the "FAQ" and this one too.

[ Parent ]
Amazing submission! (4.50 / 6) (#12)
by Stickerboy on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 10:38:35 AM EST

Damn, you make a lot of good points!

Let's email a copy of it to everybody!

Gee, what a good idea (4.20 / 5) (#16)
by notafurry on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 12:04:45 PM EST

Let's reward annoying behavior! It works with toddlers, why not here?

Oh, wait... there's a flaw in that logic, I think...

+1FP (2.50 / 2) (#19)
by b1t r0t on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 12:14:48 PM EST

For use of the terms "spam-gangs" and "spamafia".

-- Indymedia: the fanfiction.net of journalism.
Missing poll option: (5.00 / 3) (#27)
by scanman on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 02:44:32 PM EST

Don't give out your e-mail address. DUH! I just can't believe that no one can understand this concept. I don't give my real address to anyone I don't know, and I have yet to recieve a single spam.

"[You are] a narrow-minded moron [and] a complete loser." - David Quartz
"scanman: The moron." - ucblockhead
"I prefer the term 'lifeskills impaired'" - Inoshiro

When you sign up for a hotmail account you will (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by sweetie on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 12:14:17 AM EST

get spammed big time. You don't have to give out your real email addy to anyone, it just happens. I get xxx sh*t all the time.

"If god thinks he's doing me wrong , he'll strike his ass down with a lightning bolt!"
Have you been fucked with the wrong way? If so then post that Bitch or Dick to my Dick
[ Parent ]
Hotmail account (5.00 / 1) (#40)
by doru on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 09:21:37 AM EST

I have had a Hotmail account for more than three years; during all this time I only reveived about three spam messages (except for the Hotmail newsletter, which doesn't bother me). On the other hand, whenever I registered to one site or another I carefully opted out of everything. Then again, I might just be lucky...
I see Rusty's creation of Scoop as being as world changing an event as the fall of the Berlin wall. - Alan Crowe
[ Parent ]
Real name (4.50 / 2) (#41)
by am3nhot3p on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 11:09:40 AM EST

I have two Hotmail accounts. One, I used my name, and even though I was careful about opting out of everything I now (after about 6 years or so) get about 200 spams a day there!

The other account, I created as a disposable account, signed up to various places, and it gets about 3 spams a week. Go figure.

The name account usually receives messages addressed to many people with similar names as well, so my guess is that someone has just bulk-generated names from a list of first names and surnames, and discarded the ones that bounced.

PS: I'm testing a utf8 sig below...

[ Parent ]
Opt out can be a joke (5.00 / 1) (#43)
by www.sorehands.com on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 12:34:22 PM EST

If you opt out of anything run by bigmailbox.com they will still sign you up for several. And then, they will still sell your email to many others.

I tested it with a unique email address, I got over 50 spams in a week. I forwarded all of them back to their tech support department.

Mattel, SLAPP terrorists intent on destroying free speech.
[ Parent ]

Simple filter rule - (5.00 / 1) (#44)
by gordonjcp on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 01:26:52 PM EST

Anything that has "This is not spam!" or some variant *is* spam.

Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll bore you rigid with fishing stories for the rest of your life.

[ Parent ]
Simplest (2.66 / 3) (#45)
by geekmug on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 02:27:38 PM EST

Seriously though, the simplest filter rule is anything that doesn't have your email address in the To, CC, or BCC is spam... works like a charm.

-- Why reinvent the square wheel?
[ Parent ]
except for anyone on a mailing list (4.00 / 2) (#53)
by WetherMan on Wed Apr 03, 2002 at 02:40:23 AM EST

except for ANYONE that subscribes to a mailing list... guess those folks are out of luck then.

[ Parent ]
simple patch is... (none / 0) (#66)
by geekmug on Sun Apr 21, 2002 at 09:12:15 PM EST

to filter subject lines for the [...] that most decent mailing list servers have.
-- Why reinvent the square wheel?
[ Parent ]
BCC? (5.00 / 1) (#58)
by jas on Thu Apr 04, 2002 at 10:34:09 AM EST

Umm...yeah. Because I can really see if I've been BCC'd something or not.

[ Parent ]
again.. (none / 0) (#67)
by geekmug on Sun Apr 21, 2002 at 09:13:46 PM EST

as with any filter rule to remove spam.. don't send it to the trash without inspection. I filter emails into folders.. anything left in the inbox is either spam, or a BCC (which I have yet to EVER recieve such an email).

-- Why reinvent the square wheel?
[ Parent ]
Once you give it to anyone its out of your hands (4.00 / 2) (#47)
by tdillo on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 02:36:06 PM EST

I always used throw-away accounts for using online and only gave out my *real* email to friends and family. I rarely recieved any spam for the last ten years.

A few months ago however, one of my friends saw a 'too good to be true' offer online and since he just *knew* I would be interested in it also he gave them my real email. I started to get so much spam in my Inbox I had to get a new email address from my ISP.

BTW Seth, I really enjoyed this story. +1 FP!

[ Parent ]
Nah. (3.50 / 2) (#34)
by delmoi on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 06:54:05 PM EST

There will always be people who are not a part of the mafia and still spamming, maybe people who don't speak english, some people might jsut get lazy

Aditionaly, everyone else would want to get on board, and as their payout is equal to the spam deleted, they would want to flood the service with as much spam as they could. clogging the network.

My solution? Spam = death. Actualy I have another solution I'm planning to patent that I think would work just as well :)
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
The Upside (5.00 / 2) (#36)
by 90X Double Side on Mon Apr 01, 2002 at 10:49:50 PM EST

The positive aspect would be that the spamafia would have to violently put an end to any "rogue spammers"

“Reality is just a convenient measure of complexity”
—Alvy Ray Smith
No need for bouncing, spammers too stupid (4.40 / 5) (#39)
by carbon on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 03:58:31 AM EST

No, this has not a chance in heck of working, even if it is completely economically brilliant (and I can't pass judgement on this, because I don't know much about this.) You wana know why? Here's why:

Spammers are complete idiots!

Spammers constantly send out misspelled, misbuilt, and truly annoying ads. They seem to gang together and use their ads as _weapons_ in order to annoy people they dislike. This sure says a lot about how effective they think the email is as advertisement, eh? And yet, they continually send out more to huge lists of people, even though no-one in their right mind would ever buy anything advertised to them in a spam email. It doesn't matter if the spammers have economic incentive or not.

Here's my solution: user/ISP-level spam filtering software, on everybody's machine. Software like SpamAssassin is capable of removing spam from incoming email with very high levels of accuracy. None of this bouncing/fee stuff is necessary, because spammers rarely even put a real reply address on their ads anyways. With a properly set up configuration, it will only let a small percentage of spam pass by, and it will almost never remove valid email.

The moment that spam can't even reach it's destination is the moment that spammers stop sending it.

Wasn't Dr. Claus the bad guy on Inspector Gadget? - dirvish
They sure sound like advertisers to me... (5.00 / 1) (#42)
by FredBloggs on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 11:54:20 AM EST

"Spammers are complete idiots!

Spammers constantly send out misspelled, misbuilt, and truly annoying ads. They seem to gang together and use their ads as _weapons_ in order to annoy people they dislike. This sure says a lot about how effective they think the email is as advertisement, eh?"

Stupid or not, both spammers and the advertising industry make a lot of money

[ Parent ]
Spammers making lots of money? (5.00 / 1) (#48)
by carbon on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 02:43:16 PM EST

Stupid or not, both spammers and the advertising industry make a lot of money

Eh, I know that advertisers make a lot of money, but from the information I've seen, spammers rarely do. They send out spam not because they are expecting a huge return, but because sending bulk email is basically free and there's a slight chance of making a small amount of money. Or have I been misunderstanding the effectiveness of spam?

Wasn't Dr. Claus the bad guy on Inspector Gadget? - dirvish
[ Parent ]
Clearly (none / 0) (#54)
by FredBloggs on Wed Apr 03, 2002 at 04:08:38 AM EST

they make enough to make the enterprise worthwhile. To put it another way, they`ll stop spamming when its more hassle and less rewarding to continue. Fax spam has been outlawed, almost completely successfully, because you can see who sent it, and because there are legal remedies against it. This is not generally the case with email spam.

[ Parent ]
Mailfilter (4.00 / 2) (#46)
by cringe on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 02:34:10 PM EST

While Spam really sucks, I'm trying to get a feet on earth with a small mailfilter application, querying my pop3 before I fetch the mail. But that's not a good try, because you have to enter matching patterns for all spammer/spam sites you want to delete. So I have to delete most of the spam by hand... :-(

modest proposal my ass (3.33 / 3) (#49)
by nodsmasher on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 06:02:55 PM EST

when i saw it say a modest proposal i though it was a reference to jonathon swift and involved eating sombody (preferably spamers) but no this is a real modest proposal (which is bad by the way 'couse it dosn't solve the wasted resorses problem with spam there still wasteing it just a diferent kind, your not geting rid of cost's just shifting them)
Most people don't realise just how funny cannibalism can actually be.
Expenses (5.00 / 3) (#51)
by I am Jack's username on Tue Apr 02, 2002 at 09:47:33 PM EST

3. Some users have to pay their telephone company and ISP based on the time they spend online.

3rd-party mail sorting uses invisible hands to delete spam!
Inoshiro for president!
"War does not determine who is right - only who is left." - Bertrand Russell

Wouldn't Work (3.00 / 2) (#52)
by Wildgoose on Wed Apr 03, 2002 at 02:37:32 AM EST

...because it would give a direct financial incentive to send out more spam, repeatedly, and to the same addresses.

Signing up for this scheme would just mean that you would become a prime target for yet more spamming, and if you ever left the scheme you would be absolutely deluged in the stuff.

"protection", how it works (5.00 / 2) (#56)
by Seth Finkelstein on Wed Apr 03, 2002 at 05:54:03 AM EST

The idea is satirical, but you've got to remember how "protection" rackets work. It's not the same as straight-out pillaging. A spammer who emptied the pool that way should be disciplined by the "Spamafia", because that would be unfairly (in this satirical sense) taking money away from other spammers

A "protection" racket doesn't take every cent of the targets, since that means there's no more money to be had in the future. The economic logic is to keep the cost of going along with the system less than the cost of fighting it.
-- Seth Finkelstein
[ Parent ]

this would be funny (4.50 / 2) (#55)
by auraslip on Wed Apr 03, 2002 at 04:35:34 AM EST

Spammers: "sure we would love to make more money doing something for nothing"

anti-spam co: "ok just give us all of your user infomation....."

-------------------------a month later------------

open source hacker: "oops did I just reverse enginer this anti-spam program? MUHAHAHAHAHAHAHA NO MORE SPAM FOEVER"

the end
Almost convinced me (4.00 / 2) (#57)
by Lagged2Death on Wed Apr 03, 2002 at 01:23:57 PM EST

I was all for your Spamafia system until I realized that the spammers legs would not, at any time, be broken with a baseball bat. You revise your system so that a spammer gets to sleep with the fishes now and again, toss in a car bomb or two, and you'll have my support.

Starfish automatically creates colorful abstract art for your PC desktop!
Eliminate SPAM! (4.00 / 2) (#59)
by mk2337 on Thu Apr 04, 2002 at 06:33:41 PM EST

Use "disposable email addresses".

Try out www.sneakemail.com

Trust me, it works.

Filters give false positives and let clever spam through. Sneakemail doesn't suffer from these problems.

Here's the link... (none / 0) (#60)
by mk2337 on Thu Apr 04, 2002 at 07:05:12 PM EST



"Trust me, it works!"

[ Parent ]
Orangatango does this automatically... (4.00 / 1) (#65)
by bruckie on Mon Apr 15, 2002 at 09:49:26 PM EST

Orangatango (who I used to work for) generates e-mail addresses automatically as you browse. It's even easier than

For example, if I go to www.real.com and type my e-mail address on a form there, Orangatango's software removes my address and replaces it with a new disposable one specific to the www.real.com domain. If I start getting spam at that address, I just delete it. I can also create address on-demand, like with Sneakemail.

Try it. You might like it.

[ Parent ]
Violence is the only solution (4.00 / 2) (#61)
by bediger on Fri Apr 05, 2002 at 01:27:11 AM EST

At this point in time, the only way a "Spamafia" would work is if they cut up a few spammers into small pieces, fried the pieces, and ate them. This only as an example of what will happen to lying thieves who violate the social contract of the Internet.

Seriously. The only solution now is violence. Clearly, a free market just won't work, because market forces apply to spam only very weakly.

In the case of conventional mass-market advertising (Tee Vee, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards) the firm with the product to sell pays for advertising up front - it's a cost that has to be passed on to buyers when they purchase the product so advertised. If the ad or the product are repugnant enough, the firm has to eat the cost of the advertising.

In the case of spam, those being advertised to end up paying much (but not 100%) of the cost of the ad (CPU time processing the spam, network time receiving it, disk space storing it) before making a decision to buy the advertised product.

Ordinary market forces, the ones that keep the "natural viagra" billboards from being put up, or the pyramid scheme double trucks from appearing in the sunday paper, don't have much effect on email spam.

Government is clearly not going to do anything about spam - US state legistlatures don't have the authority, and US national legistalure is in the DMA's hip pocket.

This leaves us with violence, preferably baroque in nature.

-- I am Spartacus.
So now... (none / 0) (#62)
by sgp on Fri Apr 05, 2002 at 10:38:32 AM EST

we all become spammers. I've never been a spammer before, but if I'll get paid for it, and don't even have to offer a service, that sounds great to me. Of course, once everybody does this, the Spamafia will be handing over a lot of pennies, to the protection fee will increase, fewer people will use it, and it'll collapse on itself.

There are 10 types of people in the world:
Those who understand binary, and those who don't.

off with his.. FINGERS! (4.00 / 1) (#64)
by seele on Sat Apr 13, 2002 at 03:03:25 PM EST

an easy way to eliminate repeate spam offenders is to CUT OFF THEIR FINGERS!

Spam "protection" - a modest proposal | 67 comments (42 topical, 25 editorial, 0 hidden)
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