James Gleick on spam

I found James Gleick's article 1 in yesterday's New York Times rather disappointing. Gleick goes on for pages reciting the obvious facts already known to my parents, my teenage daughter, and everyone else. Did we really need to chew up column inches in the Times magazine with more salacious e-mail subject headers? What bothers me much more, though, is the lack of forward-looking perspective, and failure to spell out the full range of approaches to the problem.

The appearance of such a high-profile article does, at least, bolster my prediction that 2003 will be the year of anti-spam initiatives. Gleick mentions two: filtering, and laws. And he is, properly I think, more hopeful for the latter than the former. But more concepts than these need to be brought the attention of the mainstream audience. Two crucial ones are identity and cost.

Gleick punts the issue of identity completely. Last July in the Wall Street Journal, Walt Mossberg reviewed DigiPortal's ChoiceMail, a whitelist-based system that is, as Mossberg says, draconian but effective. The crucial advantage is that this scheme shifts the focus to the identity of the sender, not the contents of the message. There are two serious flaws, as I mentioned in Talk to the hand. First, every sender has to register with every recipient, and every recipient has to process all those registrations. Second, we sacrifice spontaneous association. I'll bet most readers of the Times Magazine are not even aware of options like ChoiceMail, never mind thinking about their implications. It's really too bad that Gleick's story missed the opportunity to raise awareness of these issues.

Gleick does touch on the issue of cost:

As a magazine reader, you might feel that advertisements are an intrusion, but you also know that the advertisers had to pay thousands of dollars and that this money supports whatever it is you like about the magazine. You've made a voluntary economic bargain -- as you do when you watch free broadcast television. By contrast, advertising by e-mail is the ultimate free ride. The cost is borne by the recipients.

But he fails to dig any deeper here. I wish he had not simply assumed that the free ride is an inevitable consequence of some immutable Internet architecture, and instead asked and answered the question: "How might that cost be shifted?" In 2003: The year of anti-spam? I include pointers to several thoughtful essays on the subject of hashcash and digital postage. That posting concluded:

On the whole, I'm impressed with the quality of discussion I'm seeing. I hope it continues. Arriving at a workable balance of constraints is going to be a subtle process, and it's going to require all of us to think out of our usual boxes.

The high-quality discussion I refer to there is happening entirely online. The Times' tech-reporting crew -- James Gleick, Steve Lohr, and Amy Harmon -- need to surface more of that discussion in print. I believe they can, and will. But I've got to say, Dave Winer's bet is starting to look like a sure thing.

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