November 9, 2004

· Internet

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.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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