September 24, 2002

More on censorware, spam-killing, and "magic"

Let me make another try at outlining what I was trying to express in my message "porn, spam, "filtering", and magic", where Edward Felten has nicely replied, and in part responded:

The point I was trying to make in my original post is that too often, the same people who ridicule magical thinking about porn blocking, adopt nearly the same magical "reasoning" when the topic changes to spam blocking.

But, no, that's not really the case, in my view. This is an appealing idea, a "cheap irony". However, I don't think it's an accurate description of the reasoning error. It's not viewed as the same problem overall. Because the topic isn't only blocking. It's the theories of why the blocking is being done, and who is doing it, to whom.

The basic idea, way back in the olden days, was that through the use of magic, err, I mean technology, each person could have their own Internet environment perfectly tuned as they wanted it, and with no "social" aspects necessary (here meaning g-guuhh-guh-government, a word one was supposed to gasp and spit when uttering). What was never supposed to be said then, was that for the case of censorware, it was in fact NOT a situation of a person having their own environment, but of a third-party imposing restrictions on another person, said person presumably actively trying to escape. There was a very weird doublethink going on, where the Internet was supposed to be at the same time 1) uncensorable and 2) very easy to control. With the answer depending on whether it was governments or parents doing the controlling.

But with spam, it really is a matter of a person controlling what they themselves want to see. So someone can believe censorware doesn't work because control magic (protection-from-sex) will fail when cast on a resisting third-party, but such control magic (ward-against-spammers) will succeed when being cast on oneself. And this set of beliefs is even more consistent with the old Net ethos, in fact it might be said to define it.

Moreover, it's important to understand that the blocking theory of censorware is different from spam-killing. In general, there's an idea that censorware is "filtering" out "harmful" material, where even one exposure can be profoundly harmful. Whereas with spam, the problem is nuisance. From this viewpoint, censorware must be far more effective than a spam-killer. A censorware program which was theoretically perfect, except for the flaw that the subject could find just a single unblocked sex site each day, would be near useless. Whereas a spam-killer which which was theoretically perfect except for the flaw that each user had to deal with just a single spam slipping through each day, would be a great help.

Fundamentally, censorware is a content issue, while spam is an amount issue.

So it's not inconsistent for someone to think censorware can't work to the level needed, but spam-killing can do so, because of this content-vs-amount difference.

I believe the no-technical-solution-to-a-social-problem flaw is deeper. The "cheap irony" doesn't apply because people aren't necessarily reasoning inconsistently when they think censorware will fail because it's third-party control focused on "harmful" content, while spam-killing can work because it's first-party control focused on level of nuisance. When viewed this way, there's a world of difference.

However, the problem is that in spam, the spammer wants to escape the control of the program! That's where the social vs. technical fallacy lies. The attack is coming from the "other side" of the system.

I do believe the idea of a simple technical solution to spam is almost certainly wrong, though, just as in censorware. Because in both situations there are parties who want to break the technical system, from some of the strongest motivations of humanity (in the case of censorware - sex, while in the case of spam - money).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in spam | on September 24, 2002 12:04 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups

Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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