A Weblog About Topics and Issues Discussed in the Book Spam Kings by Brian McWilliams

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November 13, 2004

Spam blacklists threaten free speech?

I'm always puzzled when libertarian-leaning types characterize spam filters as a threat to free speech.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation raises the censorship specter once again in a Nov. 12 white paper about collateral damage in the spam wars.

EFF logo The EFF reports that anti-spam blacklists and filters, such as SpamCop.net and Spam Assassin, sometimes wrongly block email from what the EFF calls "non-commercial email lists," including those run by MoveOn.org, Declan McCullagh, Bruce Schneier, and the EFF itself.

The authors of the EFF report, Cindy Cohn and Annalee Newitz, call for anti-spam services to adopt a set of "best practices" to ensure that "free speech must not fall victim to over-broad, ineffective filtering and blocking."

I can understand why some mailing list operators are frustrated by spam filters. Last year, emails from the Wesley Clark presidential campaign were mysteriously being blocked from my inbox until I configured my ISP's spam filters to stop using SpamCop. (SpamCop's filters are. I've learned, too aggressive for my tastes, but I still recommend it as a tool for reporting spam.)

Still, I don't understand how such incidents could be characterized as an incursion by my ISP or SpamCop on Wesley Clark's or my right to free speech.

The EFF report seems to lose sight of the fact that, as an email sender, your rights end at your recipient's network border.

Now, as an email recipient, if your spam filter isn't working right (it lets too much spam through, or blocks legitimate stuff), and configuration tweaks don't solve the problem, you can always seek a better filter. (I dropped SpamCop and started using Spamhaus instead.) If your ISP, and not you, controls the filter and won't make the desired changes, you can always switch ISPs.

Kudos to the EFF for publishing this report, and not simply filing a lawsuit, as some aggrieved victims have recently done.

As one email deliverability expert recently told me, there's a "flight to quality" underway in the world of spam blocking. End-users and ISPs are gravitating toward anti-spam services that are not only good at blocking spam but also are professionally run. That's the sort of market-based approach that you'd expect libertarians would advocate.

Posted by brian at November 13, 2004 7:36 PM


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