Some approaches to fighting spam may paint with too broad a brush and stain the First Amendment, some legal and Internet experts say. Anyone who receives an unsolicited mass-mailed message can report it to one of about 400 so-called blacklists. These Web sites police spam by identifying "bad" and "good" e-mailers. Some work with ISPs to block mailings from accused spammers, and others provide the information for software products that maintain lists of senders to block. Others publicize senders' names in a sort of digital gallows.
The blacklist practice earned both praise and derision in a session Thursday at the ongoing Spam Forum sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission here this week. Participants include Web marketers, ISPs, lawyers, and antispam activists.
It is possible that some people are wrongly reporting nonspammers to blacklists, motivated by political intentions, says Cindy Cohn, legal director of the digital civil liberties watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"The freedom and openness of the Internet is a feature and not a bug," she says. Just because people disagree with something they see online doesn't make it spam.
Although blacklists empower people to fight junk e-mail, Cohn says, she is concerned that the complaint-driven blacklists sometimes foster "censorship and content discrimination." People who complain about e-mail senders may not realize what happens as a result of their complaints, she suggests.
For example, nonprofit organizations and legitimate businesses get lost in a gray area when spam blacklists block them from sending e-mail and don't tell them so, Cohn says.
In the past several months, a theater company, a high school club, and political activism groups like Moveon.org have alerted Cohn that their e-mail messages were not getting through to people who signed up to receive them.
Large listservs that engage in political activism online, "one of the tremendous benefits of the Internet," might suffer, says Cohn.
Blacklists also block bank statements, daily newspaper bulletins, and airline reservations, says Stuart P. Ingis, an attorney with Piper Rudnick. While both nonprofit and for-profit companies face being curtailed by spam-blocking software, ISPs and e-mail service providers struggle to keep up with the workload and costs that junk e-mail creates.
The sheer volume of spam has multiplied in the last six months, technology experts say. Internet service and e-mail providers are scrambling to block spam; but even as they develop new software, the spammers often outwit them.
"The filtering technologies are our last resort to save this medium," says Julian Haight, who operates SpamCop, a spam reporting site that also markets blocking tools.
Still, the junk keeps coming. Between 70 and 80 percent of all incoming e-mail messages that Nortel Networks Corp. handles are spam, says Chris Lewis, a Nortel security architect. The company deals with approximately 2 million spam messages at a cost of up to US$10,000 every day, Lewis says.
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