Spam, Net porn, file-sharing: It's all a "smokescreen": Readers respond to Andrew Leonard's "Filter Mojo."

By Salon Staff
July 1, 2003 2:35AM (UTC)
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[Read the story.]

This whole controversy is a smokescreen. Lawmakers, journalists, people who think they are journalists (not you) -- all of them are telling us that the Internet is becoming unusable because of spam, hackers, and porn. This is not true. My computer at home has no filters or blockers. I don't even have a firewall. The popup ads are annoying, but can be closed. Spam accounts for a small fraction of my messages. Viruses can easily be blocked and removed. With improved bandwidth and CPU speeds, navigating the Net is easy and fun. Does anybody remember trying to download pictures 10 years ago?


On the other hand, a few blanket laws from our technologically clueless Congress could turn the whole thing into an awful mess. Here is the problem: All of you journalistic types have a public profile. Of course you will get bombarded with messages. But the vast majority of the people on the Internet are anonymous. Your view of things, through no fault of your own, is skewed, tainted by a new occupational hazard. The real story is that the Internet is more useful than ever, but certain people want to change that for the sake of further concentration of power.

-- Micah Drayton

The argument that spammers have some sort of free speech right is not correct. Granted, they have free speech rights. So do we all.


What if, instead, all the spam one receives were instead pre-recorded telephone messages? What if your phone range 200 times per day with an advertisement? I'll wager you'd be annoyed.

Mind you, before the recent leap in spam transmissions, I was receiving over 100 e-mails per day because of an attorney listserv in which I participate. Not every posting was of interest to me, but it was easy to sort through them quickly. Now I miss lots of e-mail because I am sorting through spam, sometimes too quickly. Yet those who wish to use the Internet to "sell" often miss the point.

I need a new car. I have gone to a number of sites which offer me the opportunity to "build" my own vehicle, get a price quote on it, arrange for financing, and see if one is available near me. At the end of this little exercise, I get an e-mail back from a dealer who expects me to come in and listen to some car salesman give me a pitch. They seem to miss the point that I went to all that effort on the Internet precisely to avoid the damned sleazy salesman. I don't want to hear someone offer to "save" me another $250. I want to know the price. I want to know the options. If it makes me happy, I want to buy it. I'll go pick it up somewhere, preferably from deaf-mutes who will do no more than ask me to sign for receiving the car and hand me the keys.


-- Steven Flowers

Andrew Leonard's article is interesting, but he loses his thread near the end. There is a difference between improving one's methods and winning a struggle against determined opponents. There was no one who was fighting to keep browsers inefficient; spammers and pornographers have a vested interest in circumventing barriers, legal or otherwise. Mr. Leonard might be correct in implying that an arms race between the cops and the crooks will criminalize activities that we take for granted. But it doesn't have to be that way.


The bad part about spam is not its content or its intent, but the fact that the senders disguise themselves and abuse private property to get it to you; private people and legitimate businesses never do this when they send e-mail. And as far as pornography on library workstations goes, you usually can't get Hustler or Barely Legal in the magazine section of your public library, so prohibiting porn for minors (the ruling was pretty specific about filtering for children, as I understand it) at libraries may not be as slippery a slope as some would have us believe. If the government does use the Internet to police the Internet, don't expect a final victory; the government will probably be successful in curbing things like spam, which everybody hates, but governments have never been very successful in criminalizing the socially accepted behavior of the populace.

-- Chris Coccio

Why is it so difficult for people (e.g. Salon's Andrew Leonard) to come up with a workable definition of spam? What is wrong with considering spam anything and everything that comes from someone I don't know? Someone that I did not give permission to e-mail me? Because that's really the rub, isn't it? People I don't know keep sending me messages that I didn't request or pre-approve. Prosecuting the spammers that use deceptive tactics or operate scams is all well and good, but it misses the point. No matter how genuine the message, it costs me money every time something comes into my in box, so if I don't know the sender and I didn't leave my e-mail address lying around for public consumption, the sender shouldn't have sent it.


-- Christopher Taylor

I enjoyed Andrew Leonard's "Filter Mojo" article very much. I had an amusing thought while reading it: bottled water. I live near the largest freshwater system on the continent, yet people buy bottled water. The copyright holders should think about that. Who would pay for something they can get for free? Enough product differentiation and perhaps a similar miracle could be pulled off.

If copyright owners spent their money advertising the dangers of downloading files from the Net, such as viruses, and highlighted the superior sound quality of CDs, maybe people would pay for what they could get for free. Maybe people would buy more CDs.


We hear over and over from hardware vendors -- and other parties that benefit from the perception -- that MP3s sound as good as a CD. This is patently untrue. Yet people believe it just like they believe Saddam and Osama are brothers, separated at birth and conspiring to blow up our SUVs. It's the only thing they hear on the subject.

As for filtering, haven't they figured out what adult material is? From the non-networked distribution perspective, I can't buy a Penthouse unless I'm 18, but I can buy Popular Mechanics. So the problem is one of restricting distribution, which as a practical matter is handled by the publisher currently. In the digital realm, could we mandate that publishers of adult material on the Net flag it as such and provide stiff penalties for those that don't? Teenagers will still manage to score copies of Penthouse, but with enforcement and stiff penalties, some worthwhile positive effects could still be achieved.

The theme here is that in many cases, new economy problems may have solutions from the old economy. Criminalizing one's customers is perhaps not the greatest tactical business innovation ever conceived. Making everyone surf the Net with huge blinders rather than putting plastic covers on the dirty magazines is a similarly odd approach to a problem.

-- John Akred


You mentioned almost every issue I could think of as a factor in the problems of the Internet and government intervention therein. Still, you miss the fundamental question of why government even cares about us being spammed to death.

The answer is simple, and the one thing that commentators on both sides fail to talk about: The Net gives the government and others a whole new way to control people. Spam e-mail threatens their little wet dream, because people dread opening their e-mail now. It's probably a good thing that spam is slowing the movement down, because it's clear that for as long as there aren't some major and basic advances in network and PC OS security, that the whole stupid mess won't work right anyway.

Think about all that e-signature and e-filing crap that got going in the '90s. Bill and Al wanted us to be hooked up, wired in, and totally dependent on the personal computer for just about everything. E-mail was going to solve everything about communications. Cheap, clean, saves trees, and speeds delivery -- but it still doesn't solve the problem of people who don't type well, spell well, are incompetent native speakers of English, or who simply don't respond to e-mail. It gets your supposed friends and supposed loved ones sending you 7+ times forwarded jokes that were old 20 years ago, chain letters, and e-mails that "phone home" whether or not you opened them to the sender (Blue Mountain embedded 1-by-1 pixel image tags in the body of messages, which don't work when you use Pine or Mutt or anything else of that ilk. My mother hounded me for two months about supposedly not having opened one, once.)

YAWN I sent e-mail with !path addresses on it in the '80s. I'm a geek. I'd probably not have a computer at home if I didn't work online. Ecards don't do anything for me, as they are just another cookie that I have to knock out of my browser some point down the road. Many more don't want computers at all -- they don't want to be chained to machines and I certainly don't blame them. This will surely usher in the end of the world -- at least according to one marketing dork who felt that everyone should be required to both own a computer and also read all their e-mail every day -- but then again it might make us just a little more human and a little less bent on "winning" in the global market. Still, after 15 years working with the Net and these amazing little machines I still find myself asking if any of it is real, or even important?


History gets to decide that, not me.

-- V.A. Legowik

Salon Staff

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