The Common Good
November-December 2003

What to Do About Spam?

by David Batstone | November-December 2003

Technology does not uproot the themes of trust and betrayal in our human drama.

My mother sent an e-mail to me last week recommending a miracle pill that would make me smarter, grow more hair on my balding head, and enlarge my male member. One pill...such a deal. Oh, and if I acted quickly, I could chop a percentage point off my mortgage rate. I was so excited I re-read the note. It was then I noticed that the e-mail began, "Dear Friend." Suspicion crept in; my mom never calls me that.

I'm now lowering my expectations. I'd be satisfied merely to find a magic pill that will make my junk e-mail, or spam, go away. Seriously, it's ruining my love affair with e-mail. Opening my Web connect used to be a high note of the day. I now dread the barrage of sexual offers and persistent requests from African diplomats for my help in smuggling millions of dollars out of their overflowing national treasury.

Spam is out of control; it accounts for a full 50 percent of all electronic mail. And it's getting worse. Spammers seem to hurdle every obstacle thrown up in the ether to stop them. A filter can block e-mail from addresses an individual doesn't list as an approved sender. But along came virus-powered spam, so that junk mail is likely to come straight from the computers of close friends and family.

The utter interdependence of computer networks makes e-mail an easy target. A virus launched one morning can infect computers all over the world by the end of the day. The Slammer virus, which hit in January of this year, spread to more than 100,000 computers in the first 10 minutes alone. The author of the SoBig virus, another of the year's more dastardly villains, turned thousands of computers into virtual slaves posed to do the virus's bidding as electronic mail carriers. Information security teams are worried that virus worms already have wiggled into major corporate or public networks, lying undetected until they perform some act of sabotage or thievery.

Don't look for government to send in the cavalry. When Congress considered strict measures to punish the delivery of unsolicited e-mail, marketers who rely on the Internet to recruit customers and suppliers responded with a hue and cry. If it had any moxie, the Federal Trade Commission would step in and establish a consumer opt-out for spam just as it did for telemarketing. I've been looking forward to the telemarketing "do not call list" helping my family win back our dinner hour. I'd love to regain my appetite for e-mail as well.

Unfortunately, even tough laws may be ineffective against spam. Spammers who start to feel regulatory heat can move their operations overseas, a process that is already well under way. Junk e-mail is global. I'm sure that I am not the only person receiving a regular jolt of Japanese porn ads.

SHOULD WE BE surprised that the Internet is turning into an analog to our social world? Though the Web first emerged as a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood with unlatched doors and open curiosity to strangers, spam has turned the Web into streets of fear and suspicion. (How revealing that software filters allowed individuals to vet their approved senders into "white lists." If you're going to set up a gated community with digital guards at the entrance, surely you would want to keep "non-whites" out!)

It's easy to be cynical, of course, and to underestimate our primal need for trust and safety. I fully anticipate that the wide-open e-mail system to which we have become accustomed will fade into the horizon behind us. The Web will devolve into millions of micro-networks, each self-contained, serving its own trusted circle. No one—machine or human—will be allowed into that community of trust without knowledge of a secret, individualized password. Some private forms of communication even will demand a biometric (for example, a fingerprint) proof of identity.

So much for a brave new world. Technology does not uproot the constant themes of trust and betrayal in our human drama. It simply gives us new tools to write the story.

David Batstone, executive editor of Sojourners, is author of Saving the Corporate Soul & (Who Knows) Maybe Your Own (Jossey-Bass, 2003).

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