Taking instructions from radio transmitters embedded in their skulls, our cold-eyed bodyguards followed us into the atrium of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, just blocks from the White House, where the summit was to take place. Then we all deployed to our hotel room and consulted into the morning hours with our extensive entourages while a steady stream of encrypted position statements flowed into our computers.
Actually, the usual Internet motley crew straggled in Wednesday night and Thursday morning, and so far as I know, none (except for a possible few whose medications failed them utterly) received direct-to-skull transmissions or had entourages. There were technical folks handling the myriad details of controlling spam at ISPs and such places; entrepreneurs working on anti-spam software; various mid-level folks whose function escaped me; and spam and/or privacy experts invited to think deeply in public for the benefit of the others. All were there, it seems, to combat spam.
What is spam, exactly? Well, it's unwanted email, in particular unwanted email that wants something of you—your time, attention, a particular piece of behavior, money. It is, as someone remarked to me over a few stiff drinks, almost universally idiotic. It often manifests itself as get rich quick schemes ("Make $5000 a Week Working in Your Outhouse!), chain letters ("Pass this Along and Get Rich or Don't and Die Like a Dog"), pyramid schemes, the sale of quack medical products ("Cure Your Brain Cancer with Seeds of the Bongo Bush!"), and, of course, links to porn—particularly if you've been unwary enough to have a look at any porn sites, which will often return the favor by having a look at you. In its purest form. It is another chapter in the long American history of there's one born every minute and never give a sucker an even break.
As the conference progressed, I became fascinated with the idea that spam is the cockroach or cold virus of the net: essentially parasitic, simple-minded in its pursuits, difficult to exterminate from local environments, impossible to exterminate locally. When thought of as a cockroach, spam can be seen as incredibly prolific, mildly disgusting, capable of hiding under most anything and of scuttling quickly from one place to another when exposed. When thought of as a cold virus, spam can be seen as annoying, adaptable, constantly mutating. Either way, spam appears inevitable.
Are these good metaphors for spam? Well, I would argue they're better than spam—which has very little to recommend it except for easy recall, inherent comedy (thanks to Monty Python's considerable efforts), and a connotation of something disgusting (though not, of course, to the purveyors of this fine, if mysterious meat product and the many Hawaiians who I've been told regard it as an excellent basis upon which to construct a menu). And I must admit that Spam also can make a visually arresting display when cans of it are piled emblematically high as they were during one of the several buffets provided at the conference.
I'm leaning toward the virus metaphor myself because spam is a linguistic—or, to be technical, semiotic—phenomenon, and as William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson have insisted, "Language is a virus" (they think it's from outer space, but I'll have to get back to you on that one). Also, the many evasive mechanisms spammers have employed remind me of viruses' incredible adaptability. For instance, a common technique is for a piece of spam to include a link for the recipient to click on, "to be removed from this mailing list". This link, helpful when used by legitimate mailing lists, is often another lure; that is, you click on the link, and by doing so you send a message to the spammer that you actually got his, which only encourages him to spam you some more ... the cockroach.
Perhaps spam is a cold virus sent by cockroaches. It's a working notion.
A confession: during the conference I paid attention almost exclusively to the deep thinkers. While the technical sessions no doubt were fascinating to those working through the relevant issues and problems, I'm not one of them, and I imagine that most of you aren't either. So what we've got here is a distinctly non-geekoid look at what often is a very geekoid topic, particularly when it comes to issues such as handling the influx and outflux of spam at large Internet service providers.
The conference was opened by Sunil Paul, founder and chairman of Brightmail, Inc., which hosted the summit. Brightmail is an email specialist—providing, it says on their website, "advanced technologies and solutions to enhance the capabilities and manageability of email". Which I'm sure they do. Mister Paul made it clear that the world would be a better place if spam were exterminated, and I believe everyone agreed—certainly if they didn't, they kept their mouths shut. He then introduced Jason Catlett, to provide the opening keynote.
Catlett, president of Junkbusters, is a renowned privacy expert (I've always wanted to call someone a renowned expert, and now I've done it). His message—which other speakers also sent—was that spam, while technologically novel, is not a unique phenomenon and that we can think about how to deal with spam by looking at the history of similar phenomena. He put the problem of spam in historical and, indeed, philosophical perspective. He quoted Kant on freedom from the will of another and Hegel on the progress of freedom, used Coleridge's writing of "Kublai Khan" as an example of privacy invasion, and events portrayed in Hiroshige's "53 Stages of the Tokaido" as an example of real-world spamming. I was delighted to see him do all this, though I found myself wondering how his largely businessperson and techperson audience felt about it. He also gave a quick and profoundly knowledgeable tour of the history of spam in the US. If you were new to the spam game, Catlett's speech could get you quickly up to speed.
Rick White, lawyer and former Republican congressman from Seattle—"from Microsoft," he joked, quite accurately—followed. He emphasized the clumsiness of government in dealing with complex, dynamic issues such as spam, and put forth a vision of government—and, by implication, regulation—as "a dispute resolution mechanism of last resort". He relayed his belief that people in government who vote on net policy do not have clear ideas about the details. Given his conservative and pro-corporate allegiances, these views were not surprising. However, he also made a couple remarks that I found moderately surprising: first, that it may be too late to resist regulation, because parties with competing interests may be incapable at this point of self-regulation; and that spam, like porn, cannot be controlled by US law.
Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel to the Center for Democracy and Technology, followed Rick White. I agreed with almost everything she said and found her presentation eloquent and compelling. She spoke for what she believed to be common goals of the people at the conference: an open, decentralized net architecture, supporting the First Amendment to the US Constitution and a vibrant economy. She also spoke in favor of regulation by the least restrictive means, no state-centered regulation, anonymous, private communications, and regulations that were not made more stringent because computers are involved. She also iterated that publishers, not conduits (for instance, ISPs) should be responsible for content, that burdens on speakers should be avoided whenever possible (on the "avert your eyes" principle), and that ISP policies and government regulations should not be intertwined. She then went into some detail about the insufficiencies of proposed legislative remedies to spam, all of which threaten to violate these stated principles. She made the excellent point that commercial speech is already regulated in ways that we wouldn't tolerate in private speech and that there is a body of case law about commercial speech to assist us in dealing with spam.
Then came lunch, after which there were a number of technical presentations in smaller forums, I believe, all of which I missed.
The next morning began with a talk by Lawrence Lessig. He opened by stating what he called the "principle of the Internet": end-to-end, a simple network with intelligence at the ends. "Don't force anything on the customer," he said is its guiding principle. "Build the network to give the users control." According to him, this principle was chosen to encourage innovation—the network can't discriminate, so the market (in the largest sense) controls. He put these observations in a context familiar to readers of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. In cyberspace, he says, code creates architecture, and architecture determines what is possible. Thus the choices made to deliver the network as we know it could have been different, and the architecture can be changed so that only applications that fit the prevailing forces would be allowed—think "Microsoft" and "Windows," for example. He then shifted to a discussion of the current frenzy of patent applications and litigation, describing it as a world where technologists innovate to one where innovation is licensed.
Only then did Lessig turn directly to spam. He discussed regulatory obsessions with spam as replays of earlier attempts to regulate porn. He pointed out that both porn and spam are regulated in realspace, where physics constrains the easy movement of atoms (e.g., porn magazines, junk letters). But in cyberspace both can be given easy, almost frictionless distribution, which has provoked the authorities into attempting to block the communication of both porn and spam—with considerable burden thus being put on the end user through techniques such as making one's age self-authenticating. He cited the overturned Communications Decency Act as an example of this kind of regulation, the recently in force Children's Online Privacy Protection Act—which he believes will also be held unconstitutional—as another. The overall pattern with both porn and spam he summarized as follows: code creates problems (the easy dissemination of porn and spam); Congress fails to deal effectively with the problems; new code is created (for instance, censorware), which is both costly and creates unwanted consequences. (For instance, under the guise of protecting children from porn, censorware makers inevitably "protect" them from other things as well, such as sites about breast cancer or AIDS.)
Built into Lessig's talk was an implicit conclusion: that attempts to "solve" the problems of porn and spam can go seriously awry because they do not observe the principles the Internet was built on; thus, any solutions should honor the integrity of the Internet and resist big, flawed measures that will cause worse problems than they solve.
Lessig was followed by a panel on "East-West Code"—the east-west distinction between one Lessig made in his book Code, referring, very roughly, to the propensity of the east coast to write law, the west to write software. I despair at giving any adequate account of this panel, moderated by Lessig, which included Jason Catlett, Rick White, Deirdre Mulligan, and representatives from CAUCE, AT&T, and MAPS, all concerned in their own ways with spam. I should note, however, that as the participants were all knowledgeable in the arcana of spam, there was little silly disagreement. There was, rather, considerable discussion of the effectiveness of possible ways to combat spam, with Mulligan putting forth the idea of the bounty—that is, technically adept folks could be encouraged to hunt down and report notorious spamsters by providing financial rewards. Some, including Lessig, found this an interesting approach; others did not.
Friday afternoon the last major presentation was made by Simson Garfinkel. Like Catlett, Garfinkel brought a historical perspective to the discussion of spam. He opened, however, by remarking on spam-related phenomena that he found surprising: the relative lack of political spam, spam from non-US sources, and porn spam; the growing amount of fax spam, despite the TCPA; the abundance of PR spam; and the absence of a cryptographic solution to the problem of spam. He then quoted a book from 1970, Arthur Miller's Assault on Privacy, which he believes shows that the issues have not changed in the past thirty years. Garfinkel didn't appear to have a particular argument to present. However, like Catlett he is extremely knowledgeable on the history of spam and presented interesting if anecdotal observations concerning key moments in that history. Among them: even permission-based marketing fails to conform to fair information practices; spam is polluting the email environment so that genuine marketing via email is becoming impossible.
Over the two days of the conference, I tested my cockroach/cold virus metaphors against what the speakers were saying, and I found, alas, that they continued to prove accurate. My tentative conclusion is that spam, like these besetting evils, has found a solid niche in the environment of the net, and that like them it is mindlessly adaptable, therefore that avoiding them it is often more trouble than it is worth. Spam annoys, dismays, and causes some people considerable expense. However, it doesn't scurry across the kitchen counters and floor when the lights come on, and I don't believe it will make you sneeze—at least not yet.
About the word "summit": I know I shouldn't pick on this usage, but this was my second "summit" in the past six months, and I still wonder: geographically, where are the valleys or the flatlands? socio-politically, where are the heads of state and the dignitaries? I've concluded that the word is simply another one of those stray terms from the new economy, a little meme or word virus that has propagated because people planning these things love to inflate their importance. I could be wrong, of course.
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