May 7, 2005

Spambusters hidden agenda

Political censorship via spam filtering
Letter to friends by Moshé Machover
Published: 04/05/05

Dear Friend,

The issue I am writing to you about is of the utmost importance and seriousness: it involves a grave threat to our freedom of expression and communication. In brief, it concerns a sinister imposition of US-based, but world-wide, political censorship in the guise of “filtering of spam”.

As we all know, the problem of spam (unwanted email, some of it distasteful or noxious) has reached enormous proportions and has become not only a nuisance, but—by clogging the email system—a real danger to free email communications.

Faced with this situation, various remedies are being tried.

One of the simplest and safest is a filter built into certain email software packages that a user has in his/her own computer. For example, Eudora, the email software I use on my computer, has an in-built device for segregating incoming messages suspected as spam. (This software assigns a “spam score” to each incoming message, and you can fix a threshold such that messages assigned score above it are segregated from the rest.) These are filed in a separate in-box, where they can be rapidly inspected; the false positives (ie messages falsely suspected as spam) can be transferred to an ordinary in-box, and the remaining ones (real spam) deleted.

Conversely, the false negatives (spam messages undetected as such by the filter) can be transferred into the spam box. This clever piece of software can “learn” from experience: in future it will reduce the “spam score” of messages similar to those you have detected as false positives, and increase the “spam score” of messages similar to those you have detected as false negatives.

This solves your problem, as email user. But there remains a big problem for internet service providers (ISPs). Your ISP is the service through which you get and send your email. In many cases you can tell a user’s ISP from his"


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