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JRP Reflecting

    Reflection – written June 15, 2002

I have been out on the lecture circuit for quite a few years, along with Vint Cerf and others, praising the Internet for all the good it can bring to the world. The GIP put out a paper in 1995 about how the Net would yield better education, improved world health, and better economic opportunity for the world’s citizens. At this point I believe spam is an issue which endangers this bright future of the Internet.
The daily flood of emails is getting more pernicious each day. Emails contain JavaScript programs that display pornographic material in vivid color and animation, not only when you go to a web site, but right in your private email in-box. Not as an attachment — but in glaring view in the main body of the email. Parents, understandably, may forbid their kids from going on-line if they are going to exposed to such inappropriate content.
If you are new to the Internet or if you have not participated in discussion groups or registered at many web sites, you may not get too much spam. If you take full advantage of the many capabilities of the Net, your email address gets “mined” and you may get 100 or more spam emails per day and then, like me, you will begin to spend a nontrivial part of each day deleting unwanted email. The first half billion people got connected and were very happy about their daily use of the Net. If the current trend continues, many of the next 2 billion may decide the Internet is not worth the trouble. This in turn can imperil the broad potential of e-business.
I used to think that spam was akin to junk mail that we all get in our physical mailboxes. I once even argued that I got more junk postal mail than junk email. Those days are long gone. It has now become a daily deluge. It is analogous to people driving by your house and stuffing your mailbox with trash and pornographic materials and other insults to your intelligence and your morals. People are advised to get a new email address to avoid the problem. That is analogous to having to pick up your furniture and family and move to a new house. And then within days if not hours, be found and have your mailbox stuffed once again.
The Internet definitely boosts our productivity in many ways. However, because of spam a chunk of that productivity is being given up to faceless, nameless people. You have to clean your driveway and mow your grass every day. Filter rules? Redesign your mailbox, dig a new hole, pour the concrete — every day. Build filters to screen out certain topics–but in the process raise the possibility that you will miss something important. In some cases the JavaScript embedded in emails is flawed and crashes your email program or even your system and you are forced to spend your time recovering.
Spammers rely on the law of large numbers. If you send out ten million emails and only one hundredth of one percent respond, that is 1,000 potential customers (or suckers). Consequently, the spammers go to great lengths to get you to read their email. The subject line is often “You have been approved”, “Your order is on the way”, “Regarding your recent order”, “Talk to customer support about your problem”, “From Bill, about our discussion”, “Replying to your question”, or even “Urgent, from Mom”. Recently I have received a lot of email from friends and family asking why I had been sending out spam. The email said it came “From: John Patrick” but in reality was spam that came from someone else “spoofing” my name in hopes that it would result in higher odds of the email being opened.
The statistics are beginning to show the huge loss in productivity and the associated costs. I for one am getting indignant about spam. I am not in the market for enlarged body parts, getting out of debt, losing weight, winning a million dollars, inheriting a million dollars, gaining a million email addresses of other people, extending my life through miracle drugs, or getting government grants. If I need something I can usually find it in a few minutes or less with Google.
People are going to demand that their political leaders do something about spam. This will lead to regulation of the Internet. I think most of us feel that Internet regulation can be costly, limit innovation and hurt productivity. I believe that an ingredient of the long-term answer to the problem is authentication. If an email arrives from a person with no digital ID, I want it deleted. If the sender is not “real” I don’t want to see their email. If the sender has a digital ID but I have never received mail from them before, then I want to know who issued the digital ID to them and what the subject of the email is. If it is not an offensive topic or something I know I am not interested in and the issuer of the ID is an organization I have heard of then I’ll let it into my in-box. This isn’t the perfect solution but it could help a great deal.
The Global Internet Project is very interested in raising visibility to this problem, bringing the world’s experts together to focus on it, and urging private sector initiatives to deal with it. A workshop on the subject is being held in Washington on June 18th and I am hopeful that it will result in action plans that can bring relief. The alternative is a regulated Internet that may not be able to deliver on the great promises and potential that we all believe in.