"given that the e-mail system has gone largely unchanged since 1965,
perhaps we should be grateful that it works at all. " - David A. Karp
Spam is the biggest single threat to the continued operation of the entire internet. I'll explain shortly why I think it's such a big threat, but first, I'll explain what I mean by the term 'spam'.
What Is Spam?
To my way of thinking, spam is just another variant of malware. Even though most spam emails don't fire up software, they fit the simplest definition of malware.
Malware: any software which does something without the user's informed consent and which the user would certainly not consent to if informed.
Spam, without my informed consent, infiltrates my inbox.
Spam's primary feature is this: it is any message that appears uninvited on a user's computer when that user is accessing the internet, or a message that appears as a result of having recently accessed the internet. The access could be by reading emails. That's mailspam.
Access can be by visiting a web site which uses those incredibly distracting and annoying popup adverts. Worse than mere popups is the garbage that tells you that your computer is infected and that you really ought to buy brand X antivirus to cure the 'problem'. Then there's the "Hey, go and look at this site!" message which leads you to a scammer's site or a trojan attack. That's webspam.
Spam's secondary feature is that its message is geared to persuade someone to spend money, or take some course of action which will put money in the spammer's pocket, or both. Spammers wouldn't spam if there was no money in it.
Spam is choking the internet.
There is email spam, comment spam, video spam and forum spam. For every spam message there is a garbage or bogus website. Every message sent in response to spam is a little bit more internet traffic. As you read this, I have generated internet traffic: you have uploaded this data into your browser. All of the spam-blocking software and anti-spam help data available on the web generates internet traffic. It is said that 90% of email is spam. I would go further: I firmly believe that if spam, in all of its many nefarious incarnations, were to vanish without trace, then the whole internet would operate about ten times faster.
Unfortunately, the reality is that spammers are learning new tricks every day. They are generating garbage domain names using algorithms that can generate more domain names than the naming system was designed to cope with. When the last possible domain name has been generated and registered, we may as well go back to pen and paper, because the information superhighway will be a single-lane bottleneck.
Freedom of speech.
The idea that a spammer has some sort of 'right' to spam, based perhaps on a distorted perception of 'freedom of speech', is pure garbage. Just as I have an absolute right to stop anyone posting garbage through my door, so I have an absolute right to stop someone putting garbage on my computer. An email being viewed by me is a computer file on my computer which has been placed there with my knowledge, because I am reading my emails. But I never consented to be spammed. The fact that the email existed at some stage on a server as a file reinforces my argument against 'spammer's rights'. Most service providers have terms and conditions which specifically exclude the use of their services for the purpose of transmitting spam emails.
Freedom of speech allows a person to speak. Not SHOUT, but speak. Running up to a complete stranger and shouting loudly in their ear is an assault, not a message. Interrupting a private conversation with a shouted slogan is an assault, not a message. Even a spammer would probably recognise how wrong it would be to print out some sexually explicit messages about viagra, and then hand them to schoolkids. Don't these spammers realise that many kids have email accounts?
Freedom of speech is, philosophically speaking, a complex subject. In a nutshell, freedom of speech is both a private right and a public duty. I have a private right to speak out against wrongdoers, but I also have a public duty to so speak. If I don't have the right, I can't perform the duty. The private right and the public duty always fall on the same pair of shoulders. Freedom of speech is a 'duty-right'. Always.
So, spammers: you claim a right to spam, camouflaging it nicely as a 'freedom of speech' issue. Suppose that I were to accept that argument. Now tell me this, pray: what duty are YOU performing?
the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to freedom of speech does not trump private rights to property, see e.g.