Frequent Slashdot Contributor Bennett Haselton is back with a story about fighting censorship with spam. He starts "Is it OK to send unsolicited e-mail to users in China, Iran, and other censored countries, telling them about new proxy sites for getting around Internet censorship? I hasten to add that I have NOT done this, am not planning on doing it and would not have any idea how to go about it anyway. Between the various companies that offer proxy services, I don't know of anyone who is doing it (no, not even people who swore me to secrecy about it). But I think the question involves ethical issues that would not apply to most discussions of spam." Hit that big link below to read the rest of his words.
Lest there be any doubt, I hate spam, getting about 10,000 of them a week with no way to filter them without blocking at least some of my important mail as well; I've tried suing some spammers mostly without success, and humbly proposed one anti-spam algorithm which caught on like wildfire, if the wildfire were spreading through a... rainforest, in the... rain. But I am not against spam a priori (Latin for "unless they are telling me I need to add extra inches"), I'm against spam because that follows from other principles, and in some situations there is some question as to whether those principles still apply. (It is not as simplistic as saying that it is OK to spam "for the greater good". Stay with me!)
Getting back to basics: Why is spam a problem? Because the cost of receiving a message, however minor, is more than the benefits, which are usually microscopic considering the probability that a typical recipient would buy what they're selling. Take a small cost that exceeds a small benefit, multiply by millions of messages per day, and the cost exceeds the benefit by about $70 billion per year.
But, just as a thought experiment, could you conceive of a kind of spam that would not be a nuisance? Suppose you sent an e-mail to millions of people offering them free $20 bills. And you actually followed through and sent the money to anybody who claimed the offer. Then the conventional argument against spam no longer applies, because the e-mails are benefitting people more than they're costing them. It's hard to think of any real-life examples, but if you had sent out mass e-mails telling people about the refund checks for anybody who had bought a CD (it was real, I got my $13.86 in the mail in 2004), I probably wouldn't have come to your house to egg your windows.
"Aha!" some spammer is thinking, "my product does benefit people more than the e-mail costs them! I can help them refinance their homes at a low rate, to take out money they can multiply many times with my new stock tip, and then spend at my friend Tiffanee's new site to help pay her way towards her physics degree!" Wait. Let's just say that you're offering some miracle product at a low price, conferring some huge benefit on each person who buys it. The only costs of spreading your bounty to the world, are whatever advertising costs are incurred in getting the word out. But if your product is really the miracle you say it is, then the benefits to people (even after subtracting the price they paid for it), exceed the costs of the advertising.
Then you have several choices. You can spam to advertise the product. In this case, the costs of the advertising are passed on to unwilling recipients. But if the benefits your product confers are greater than the cost of getting people's attention, then you've still arguably done more good than harm to the world, even if the net effect on some individual people was harmful (on annoyed recipients who didn't end up buying your product). By forcing the advertising costs on other people, you've saved that much more money; you can pocket that benefit yourself, or if you pass on the savings in the form of reduced prices (which you may have to do in a competitive market anyway), you've basically transferred that much benefit by stealing it from the spam recipients and distributing it to your customers. So the main benefit to the world was the wonderfulness of your product, and on top of that, you stole some small benefit from a large number of people and redistributed it to other people, which has no positive or negative net effect.
But, because the benefits of the product outweigh the costs of the advertising, that means in a mostly-free country where your product is legal, you can also buy advertisements to get people's attention, pass the costs on to the customers in the form of slightly higher prices, and have benefits for them left over (otherwise they wouldn't still buy what you're selling). The customers still get the major benefit, the benefit of owning your awesome product. What's missing in this case is the small extra benefit that they were getting before, from you stealing from all the spam recipients and passing the savings on to them.
So for that reason, spammers are prohibited from saying "The benefits of my products exceed the costs of people's attention span to read about it, so it's OK for me to spam", by the reply: "If the benefits really exceed the costs, then you can buy advertising to tell people about it like everyone else."
But now the big question: Would that argument still hold if you wanted to advertise proxies to people in China and Iran?
It doesn't seem that you could use conventional channels to advertise proxies to Chinese and Iranian users. If you bought ads on Google AdSense or a similar ad-serving network, China might threaten to block all ads served from that network unless they started screening out ads for anti-censorship services (especially in the case of Google, which seems to comply with most Chinese self-censorship demands). Then there's the question of how to charge Chinese and Iranian users even small amounts for the services. It would not be a good idea to have the charges show up on their credit cards issued by Chinese banks. Paying small amounts with PayPal would be a little bit better since the charge would simply show up from "PayPal", without revealing the recipient. And since all traffic to the PayPal site is encrypted over SSL, Chinese censors wouldn't be able to detect or block users who were paying to circumvent the Great Firewall, unless they blocked all traffic to the PayPal site. But could PayPal be leaned on to provide the identities of Chinese users who were paying for circumvention services, under threat of having their site blocked otherwise? And the biggest impediment of all would be that once you start charging even $1 for a service, there's a huge dropoff in people willing to sign up, even if they would have to spend much more than $1 worth of effort to find a free alternative somewhere else.
So, if circumvention services provide enough benefit to Chinese users, maybe spamming proxy sites would do more good than harm, and if the lack of freedom in the country means that you could not sell or advertise the services to Chinese users by conventional means, maybe that means spamming the proxy locations would be the only way to do this.
Reading over this, I just realized that if you also believed that pot was beneficial to society, this could also justify spamming to advertise pot. I expect we'll all start getting marijuana spam just as soon as the pothead reading this gets around to it... on, like Tuesday... maybe. Just make sure they don't really get their act together enough to get pot legalized, because if that happens, they lose their rationale for spamming to advertise it! (Thinking about the pot question more seriously, I'd say that if the government banned sales and advertisements of something beneficial like milk, then spamming to advertise milk would be a good thing. The only real argument against spamming for pot is that it isn't as beneficial as milk.)
So that's the mathematical argument in a nutshell:
- Spam is bad because the costs to society are greater than the benefits. This would not be the case if you were spamming to advertise something whose benefits were greater than the costs of the spam.
- However, in a mostly-free country where your product is legal to sell, #1 should never be used to justify spamming, because if the benefits of your product are really greater than the costs of the advertising, you can pay for the advertising, add the costs on to the cost of the product, and still have benefits left over to split between the seller and the customer.
- #2 is not true in non-free countries like China, in which case if a product conferred more benefits than the costs of the spam but was not legal to sell, it might be OK to spam it.
Perhaps this logic is flawed, and I'm sure some people will tell me why they think so. The other question is whether these circumvention services really provide as much benefit to the Chinese and Iranians as those of us who run the services would like to believe. Earlier I argued that the real obstacle to most anti-censorship services is apathy on the part of the target audience, and that it was an unpleasant surprise, when I found some Chinese users on MSN Messenger to ask for help with some technical issue, to find that most of them either supported the Chinese government's censorship or didn't care enough to do anything about it. So for proxy spam to be defensible, it should -- come on, all together now, I can't believe I'm quoting the members of the industry that is the bane of my existence -- include an unsubscribe link that users can click to stop receiving any further e-mails. And a postal return address! Because who could have any cause to complain about an unsolicited e-mail that includes the sender's full mailing address in the footer?