The Obvious Solution to Spam

by Kieran Healy on November 9, 2004

In the comments to “John’s post”: about a jailed spammer, “George Williams”: notes that “If we outlaw spam, only outlaws will send spam.” This is exactly right. The solution is to put industrial-strength spamming technology into the hands of ordinary citizens. The resulting deterrent effect would reduce the flood of spam to almost nothing, as no rational spammer would risk immediate retaliation in kind. Of course, no-one would be _required_ to own huge email lists, spambot factories or “relay-rape”: kits, but enough decent citizens would legally conceal them on their person and use them as needed that the problem would take care of itself very quickly. Moreover, actual use of spam technology would be very uncommon. A survey[1] I did a few years ago while not quite on the faculty of the University of Chicago showed[2] that simply brandishing a DVD of the software was enough to deter would-be spammers 98% of the time. In the American West of the early 19th century, where this approach prevailed, letter-writing was far more common than it is today, but spam was virtually unknown. Also indoor plumbing.

fn1. The data are unavailable for reasons “too complex”: to go into here. You would be amazed how easy it is to lose every last shred of evidence showing you conducted a major piece of social research.

fn2. When appropriately, um, weighted.



Kieran Healy 11.09.04 at 3:15 pm

By the way, if any pro-gun types feel like commenting, bear in mind that (1) This is absolutely the best argument I can come up with for gun control, (2) I’m deadly serious, and (3) Liberals have no sense of humor.


Ken Houghton 11.09.04 at 3:23 pm

Yes, but in 14% of those cases, the DVD was created by MSFT, and therefore misfired accidentally.


Jason G. Williscroft 11.09.04 at 3:51 pm

Kieran… yawn.

Moving off gun control for a moment:

A friend of mine once suggested a solution to spam that, I am convinced, would end it completely. It works like this:

It costs you a nickel to send me an e-mail.

No need to enforce this; you just make it a setting on your e-mail client, perfectly optional. If I leave it off, you can send me e-mail for free. If I turn it on, it costs you a nickel.

Since most legitimate correspondence is roughly symmetric, most of those nickel payments will cancel out. In the case of highly asymmetric transactions like spamming, though, the costs would very quickly outweigh the benefits.

Even now, the average return on a spam e-mail is in the tiny fractions of a cent. Wouldn’t take much to tip that balance.


Kieran Healy 11.09.04 at 4:12 pm

Yeah Jason, that’s an excellent solution to spam. Why don’t you turn that setting on right now and start collecting nickels from spammers.

In the meantime, “read this”:


colleen kane 11.09.04 at 4:23 pm

bear in mind that… (3) Liberals have no sense of humor.

a point that can not be stressed enough.


Tim Lambert 11.09.04 at 4:26 pm

Also read this all purpose checklist on what is wrong with all proposed spam solutions.


lth 11.09.04 at 4:28 pm

Nice smackdown, Kieran :)


lth 11.09.04 at 4:29 pm

Nice smackdown, Kieran :)

9 11.09.04 at 4:37 pm

In the meantime, read this.

I seem to recall chun suggesting an exception in the hypocratic oath. It’s no FUSSP, but hey, it’s worth a try.


pinto 11.09.04 at 5:05 pm

Has anyone considered the demographic implications of the large number of Republican babies expected this July?


Jason 11.09.04 at 5:35 pm

Jason’s scheme, while hardly novel, is similar to schemes many economists and policy people are considering. Filtering spam is HARD, and introducing payments is the sort of thing mechanism designers love to do. It is probably more technically viable to do this than filter spam.

That said, the segway to discussing spam was a little out of left field. I think in the US, the gun nuts are a strange combination of survivalists with constitution worshippers. Reason is something I’d steer clear of in discussions with either group.


Ken Houghton 11.09.04 at 5:58 pm

pinto: You are confusing “Republican babies” with “babies born of Republican parents.”


Mary S. Puppet 11.09.04 at 6:05 pm

Well I’ve taken classes from Kieran and let me say that he’s just WONDERFUL! And always right, too, despite what those awful liberals might say. Kieran has just LOTTS of indsputably correct data.


abb1 11.09.04 at 6:17 pm

Banning spam is exactly how Islamofascism begins. And then they’ll come for your whisky too.


jet 11.09.04 at 6:34 pm

Inexplicably, areas that have loosened gun laws have seen a lowering of the type of crime gun ownership would seemingly prevent.

I see no reason why this wouldn’t hold true for spam as well. Good call Kieran, and a very brave departure from your normally left leaning stances ;)


Jason G. Williscroft 11.09.04 at 8:17 pm

‘Sokay, I can take it. For my next trick, I’m going to explain just how Galileo got it all wrong.



james 11.09.04 at 8:48 pm

Spam (freedom of speech) is a right spelled out in the US Constitution. Its ironic that the ideology out of power would propose a weakening of the Bill of Rights as a solution to a possible misuse of a guaranteed right. After all, that ideology may wish to write to large groups of Americans extolling them to change their mind. Heaven forbid, email is chosen as the speech medium.


jet 11.09.04 at 9:23 pm

Do companies have the freedom of speech to tie up your phone line 20 hours a day with salesmen? Perhaps 20 door to door salesmen a day wouldn’t be too intrusive?

Rights are balanced, and the 1st amendment is not absolute. Or if you believe otherwise, why just the first and not all 9 others?


limberwulf 11.09.04 at 11:47 pm

If the following statement were something that could happen, then it might actually be true: “The resulting deterrent effect would reduce the flood of spam to almost nothing, as no rational spammer would risk immediate retaliation in kind”. I say this because I think that if spammers could be easily hit back by those they targeted, as in, if anyone they spammed could return fire, then the result likely would be a massive reduction of spam. This would occur after a couple of days of every email server on the net being locked up from over use, but after that, the only spammers who could continue would be those whose computers could handle the incoming mail without crashing. That would get rid of most of the small time guys, and the bigger ones would be easy to target with other market forces.

Unfortunately, this is not realistic with spam, as the perpetrators can operate through others’ machines, thereby making the impact on themselves negligeable. It may, however, be viable in the case of gun ownership. Therefore the argument is not a bad one. :Þ


Jason G. Williscroft 11.10.04 at 12:08 am

James, I think you may be confusing the freedom to speak—which is guaranteed by the Constitution—with the right to have an audience, which is not.

I remember, over the past year, when a few actors came under fire for their public positions regarding the war. These people complained that public boycotts of their work constituted a violation of their first-amendment rights. They evidently confused their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech with an immunity to public reactions to their speech… also not enshrined in the Constitution. The government isn’t allowed to punish you for the content of your speech, but private citizens can punish you all they want, in any fashion that is otherwise legal.

Spam is the e-mail equivalent of standing on your chair and yelling in a library. It isn’t the content of the yelling that constitutes the problem; it’s the disturbance of the public peace. I note that spammers very rarely spam themselves.


KCinDC 11.10.04 at 1:45 am

Sex can be consolatory as well as celebratory. There could be a Democratic baby boomlet. And of course Ken’s point is correct.


George Williams 11.10.04 at 4:27 am

Hmm. This explains the spike in traffic to my site.

I hope it’s clear I was joking in my original comment!


Chris 11.10.04 at 5:43 am

What fun! A joke against the gun owners!

Sadly for the extreme arguments of the gun owners, there does not appear to be any measurable benefit from loosening gun laws – except on freedom of choice.

Equally sadly for the gun ban proponents, there is little evidence that there are benefits from banning guns either. Tim Lambert’s site (linked and with a comment from Tim above too!) mentions this in the course of debunking the positive claims from Lott and cronies.

Of course, the benefits of guns might be best measured in the level of spending on them in a year, plus the ancillary spending on politics and the capital value of the civilian inventory – thus explicitly having the users measure the value.


james 11.10.04 at 5:43 am

Unfortunately the US Supreme Court has decided that Corporations are quasi individuals and entitled to first amendment rights

Email, (electronic mail) is actually the equivalent of sending out mass mailings using the internet rather than actual postal service. Has the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of junk mail?

The public has every right to sanction the companies traficing in spam. Its ironic that the most effective counter to spam or telemarketers has a been response in kind. Dave Barry included the phone number for telemarketers lobby in an article about the Do Not Call List. The lobby group was swamped with calls.


vernaculo 11.10.04 at 6:10 am

One is under the impression that by “indoor plumbing” is meant an indoor commode, or toilet.
This distinction is paramount, there being no question that cooking facilities virtually necessitate quantities of water that plumbed-in access provides simply and on demand.
The commode being indoors, however, is primarily a convenience and of benefit to the infirm, the elderly, and the busy – as opposed to piped-in water’s beneficial necessity to the vital heart of any home, the cook.
However, any meal’s end result will eventually be a trip to the necessary, and anyone who’s lived for any time with an outdoor facility, what rural Americans still call an “outhouse”, can tell you there is a substantial olfactory difference between the two locations, a lingering one in the modern setting.
In addition, doing one’s business in an outdoor setting can be most conducive to contemplation, and the sight and scent of trees and natural flora can be metabolically facilitating and therapeutic.
This is countered by the urban and suburban with the relatively minor inconvenience of it’s requiring a longer walk to achieve the relief station – but what is that? A matter of a mere few yards. The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience unless one is ill or otherwise handicapped, or the weather being so inclement as to be adverse.
The cumulative effect on local water tables of a responsible community’s use of outhouse technologies can be minimized far past that of community use of great volumes of fresh water in sewage “sanitation”. Depending on the sizes of the communities of course.
But then that’s also kind of the point about the bearing of arms by the average citizen. The way we live now it’s probably not a good thing for most people to do; the overwhelming mass of humanity in ever-concentrated numbers precludes an armed civilian populace, by virtue of the necessity for enforced passivity amidst the pressures and constraints of such concentrated living; as also the outhouse is inappropriate and impossible in the heart of Manhattan or Chicago.
The way we live now we can’t all dig holes out back – many of us don’t even have an “out back”.
Yet the same gesture that dispatches the outhouse without a moment’s thought as primitive and unbearably inconvenient welcomes the unbreathable air of summertime Los Angeles as modern, and necessary to “progress”.
There may be more to this than simple knee-jerk ridiculing of so-called primitive facilities. Considering the elimination of solid waste is something the regular among us accomplish daily, it may behoove the thoughtful person to consider the disappearance of outdoor plumbing as somewhat of a loss, inasmuch as the experience al fresco (or nearly) is far more satisfying generally than that accomplished in any cramped water closet will ever be.


DaveC 11.10.04 at 6:25 am

vernaculo reminds me that the Amish are discriminated against by both plumbing laws and gun control laws (they are not supposed to have photographs taken of them – so the required picture IDs are not available to use for gun purchase) On the other hand, the incidence of drive-by shootings in Amish neigborhoods might suggest that gun control is working in those areas.


rea 11.10.04 at 1:30 pm

“the experience al fresco (or nearly) is far more satisfying generally than that accomplished in any cramped water closet will ever be.”

You are welcome to contemplate a full bladder on a cold Michigan winter morning without indoor plumbing, watching your urine crystalize in mid-air before it hits that snowbank . . .

“the incidence of drive-by shootings in Amish neigborhoods might suggest that gun control is working in those areas”

Amish gangbangers tried drive-by shootings in my rural neighborhood, but for some reason, the police were always able to catch up to their buggies before they got away . . .


Blar 11.10.04 at 7:09 pm

So, Jason, it looks like you recommend the Chris Rock approach to spam control.

But we shouldn’t overreact to the occasional spam annoyance. Did you know that people waste more time in bathtubs than they do on account spam? It’s true, but you never hear about that from the media, just like you never hear about the hundreds of thousands of people who are actually helped by spam. The media only wants to tell stories that provoke outrage over spam. Remember: spam doesn’t annoy people, people annoy people.


Jason G. Williscroft 11.10.04 at 8:09 pm

Sure, minus a few orders of magnitude. I think it’s a dumb idea re. bullets—I’d just reload my own, if they were that expensive—but that opinion isn’t likely to get much traction here.

I can tell you this, though: before I installed spam filters on my mail server, the 10-20 legitimate e-mail messages I get every day were routinely buried under a couple of thousand articles of spam. I spent an hour a day sorting through this junk, and still missed important stuff a few times a week.

It’s a problem. Do I think we should solve it by passing a bunch of laws? Draw your conclusions from the effectivess of gun control legislation. I say let the market solve the problem in the same very efficient way it solves most other problems that people—with the possible exception of carreer academics and other busybodies who can’t stand to mind their own business—actually care about.


vernaculo 11.11.04 at 10:43 am

Contemplate hundreds of thousands of years of human evolutionary history.
I was born in Montana, in February.
The chamber pot was the last step in domestic waste management – used for centuries, nay millennia – before the invention of the plumbed w.c., and would still provide a fine and tidy solution to the problem of frozen urine and possible frostbite of the delivering appendage.
I’m afraid that, like most of your mollycoddled brethren, you will have some difficulty visualizing the path taken by your eliminations once they leave your immediate possession. They sail, awash in many times their volume of precious fresh water, going as all water does, down to find its own level in lake, river, and sea.
This should lead to an unpleasant image.
There were 6 billion of us here on this earth 5 years ago, 400 million more have come to stay since then.
That is a lot of merde, as they say.
Delivering each deposit in its own little bath downstream to some kind of centralized processing facility is a bizarrely “wasteful” and impractical misuse of one precious resource, and prodigal neglect of the other; this can only be explained as the result of a neurotic denial of the natural importance of a periodic voidance of the bowels, it being considered somehow wrong to do so, though it is something we all do, and hope to do regularly.
Composting toilets work, and they work well and efficiently, as do scientifically constructed and maintained earth closets.
The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, that ends a relationship that was so deeply intimate just moments before once the fixture’s lever is depressed and flushing commenced, is more old-fashioned than the crudest outhouse, and ultimately more unhealthy to the world.
I’ll brook no slight of the backhouse from those as have no idea as to whence their own mess goes.

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