Site maintenance

The anti-spam plugin I’d been using has been discontinued by its author, so I’ve switched to a different one that seems highly recommended. E-mail me (or send me a message via Twitter) if you notice any problems commenting, logging in, etc. I considered adding Google’s new CAPTCHA-less reCAPTCHA, but decided to hold off on that unless it proves absolutely necessary. The new plugin requires that JavaScript and cookies be enabled, but I believe that was already the case.

Running a web site in 2014

I recently did some work on the back end of my web sites. I consolidated all the individual WordPress installs into a single multi-user one, cleaned up the database to free up disk space, and slimmed down the number of plugins. I’m taking advantage of Automattic’s Jetpack plugin to provide functionality that previously required a bunch of third party plugins, including: Markdown support (including in comments) “Like” buttons for social network sharing Mobile device support Push notifications when someone comments Comment login via social networks E-mail subscriptions It wasn’t long before I got some mild negative feedback: My changing the login system meant that some comments got flagged as spam which shouldn’t have been, so I had to go in and unflag them.

Hey Cosmo, bite me

Just got a robocall that said “is sending you a hey cosmo blast, press 1 to hear the message”. That’s right, no indication of who, it just started with the word “is”. For obvious reasons, I didn’t push 1. Google searches suggest that the company responsible is http://www.heycosmo.com/ On the off chance someone I know tried to use that site to send me a message: it failed. My money’s on someone trying to use it to spam, though.

FotFM: The Domain Name System (DNS)

Once upon a time, back in the ancient history of the Internet–before the 1990s–domain names were carefully controlled and regulated. A single organization controlled each top level domain. If you wanted a domain name, you had to meet their requirements. Often the policies enforced were quite picky. If you wanted a .uk domain name, you were required to actually be in the UK, for example. If you wanted a .org domain, you were required to be a non-profit organization.

Business ethics and telemarketing

InfoUSA is a list broker, a company that aggregates personal data and sells it to telemarketers and catalog sales companies. The New York Times reports: InfoUSA advertised lists of “Elderly Opportunity Seekers,” 3.3 million older people “looking for ways to make money,” and “Suffering Seniors,” 4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. “Oldies but Goodies” contained 500,000 gamblers over 55 years old, for 8.5 cents apiece. One list said: “These people are gullible.

Clinically shown to induce distrust

There’s a new service out there called PayPerPost. Basically, you get paid for posting ads in your online journal. So far, so ho-hum. One thing that makes this one a bit different is that the ads aren’t separated into their own section alongside your postings, like Google AdWords; rather, the postings themselves are the ads. Furthermore, buyers get to dictate the wording of the links. In addition, the question of disclosure is left entirely open.

The spam problem part 3: Objections to attention bonds

In part 1, I enumerated the approaches to spam eradication I was aware of, and explained my conclusion that the only approach which will work is an economic approach. In part 2 I discussed various options for tackling spam economically, ending with the one I think would actually be acceptable and useful: attention bonds.

Now I’ll run through (and shoot down) a few of the objections commonly brought up when the possibility of involving actual cash in e-mail sending is raised.

The spam problem part 2: The dismal science

In Part 1 I took a “from first principles” look at the spam problem, and concluded that the only way to actually solve the problem was to make people pay to send e-mail.

Now, it’s time to look at what I mean by that—because there are almost as many ways to implement “pay to send” as there are ways to implement filtering.

This is going to be a bit more technical than part 1. I’m going to assume you know basically how SMTP e-mail works. If not, there are tutorials available.

The spam problem part 1: Describing the problem

A great many words have been written on the subject of e-mail spam. Effort has been poured into all kinds of technological measures against it. In my view, many of these efforts have been a waste of time, because they have failed to address the fundamental problem of spam.

To explain my thinking, I’ll start with some basic statements:

  1. Your attention is a valuable resource. If you doubt this, you need only look at the amount of money spent on advertising in an attempt to acquire your attention.

  2. Therefore, your inbox is a valuable resource. Many people, perhaps most people, now check e-mail multiple times a day. In fact, according to some surveys college students spend more time on the Internet than watching TV. They check their e-mail inbox more than they look at ad breaks.

  3. SMTP e-mail allows anyone to send mail. There’s no centralized registration required in SMTP; there’s no control over the growth of the SMTP e-mail network. While some servers restrict which SMTP clients may connect to them, there’s essentially no control over who sends mail, as it’s always possible to open a new web e-mail account, buy a new ISP dial-up account, or whatever.

  4. SMTP e-mail is free for the sender. Sure, many people pay for their Internet access; but once you have an Internet connection, sending e-mail basically doesn’t cost you anything—it has marginal cost.

Now, let me re-cast those four statements:

We have unrestricted access for anyone in the world to use arbitrary amounts of a valuable resource.

Can you think of any case where there has been a system like that, and it has worked? I can’t. The canonical example is the tragedy of the commons, but there are plenty of others, including the Cambridge ‘Green Bike’ scheme and the overfishing of cod.

In order to avoid a “tragedy of the commons” situation, we need to alter the situation so that one of the statements above is no longer true. Let’s go through them again and consider our options.

Spam

Spam now accounts for 93% of all e-mail by volume, and 6% of it complies with US Federal laws.