COVER STORY: Saving the Internet from itself
by Alistair Barros
News Weekly, August 23, 2003
In the libertine world of the Web, pornography is an equal citizen with every other information resource, lying one Google, two clicks and not much else from access. Unlike the real world, where classifications restrict access, the Web is on for young and old.
With the phenomenon of spam spiralling out of control, Senator Richard Alston's announcement of the Federal Government's plans for anti-spamming legalisation later this year signals good news for the business community more generally and parents concerned about the open slather of Internet pornography.
Overseas experience, however, shows that "silver bullet" laws, not fine-tuned to particular categories like pornography, and without integration with self-regulatory mechanisms, will largely fail.
Spam email is unsolicited, advertising email, brimming in mailboxes flogging viagra, weight-loss-while-you-sleep, get-rich-quick scams, more viagra - and virtually anything under the sun. Unlike regular advertising email, the sender cannot reliably be contacted, and the receiver cannot ask for advertising to stop.
Distribution lists in the order of millions are collected by programs which "crawl" the Web, sniffing out email addresses listed on Web pages. Lists are traded among spammers and the best that mail servers can do is run spam-detecting software (e.g. SpamAssassin) over incoming mail to mark those it thinks are spam. Users can then get their email software to direct spam-marked mail into specific folders to avoid cluttering up their mailboxes. But spam-marked mail needs to be examined before deletion in case it really isn't spam, for spam-detecting is an inexact science.
And there's the rub - disbursed in mailboxes or separated, spam beckons inspection. Unless specialised pornographic detection software is used - and to date such detection is not without pores - spam containing links to an endless supply of porn sites, reaches the mailboxes of millions around the globe. Recent estimates of the amount of spam with respect to all email range up to 75%, and current indications are that spam is doubling every five months. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, wasn't hyperbolic when he recently said that the spam problem was so bad it could destroy the Internet.
With the spam wormhole unleashed on net users largely impervious to it, and to the community at large, the peculiar nature of Internet porn like some alien monster from a dark, distant space-time, has come into view. Gang rapes, torture, death, bestiality, child/teen sex, "upskirting" in toilets and subways, extreme misogynistic language - all reflect perversities beyond the "normal" wanton and voyeuristic realm of X-rated material.
Cyberspace this may be, but the images are nonetheless real. And all the more so when one considers that some of the gang rapes and tortures were not simulated and that at least 100,000 child porn sites have been encountered.
Ready exposure to extreme and destructive content has parents worried, and rightly so. Studies show that regular consumption of Internet pornography (and violence on TV) is a risk for healthy psychological development.
A recent issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Development Psychology (May 2003) involving a longitudinal study over 15 years showed that childhood exposure to violent media (TV in this instance) can predict aggression in young adults, including sexual aggression à la Mike Tyson. This tendency remains despite stabilisation of parenting factors, socio-economic status and intellectual ability.
A recent report by the Australia Institute involving an Australia National University study, "Youth and Pornography in Australia" (February 2003), provides a similar finding, detailing access to pornographic content by teenagers.
Based on a Newspoll survey of 12 to 17 year olds, it shows that access to X-rated material and Internet pornography is widespread, males are the main consumers, initial exposure generally comes from others rather than being sought, and a significant number consume on a regular basis.
Under the anonymous nature of the Internet and pre-emption of spam, the last two escalate while the percentage of female consumers moves from small, single digits to sizeable majorities.
When confronting Internet pornography and spam more generally, governments face a libertarian tension. In the United States in 1991, federal anti-spam legalisation proposed by the Democrats failed through pressure from the Republicans because it was seen as state censorship supplanting self-regulation, a violation of free speech, and a knee-jerk reaction inviting slowdown of Internet uptake with a negative spill-over into E-Commerce.
Two years later with spam at plague proportions, the business community seems amenable to improved self-regulation as well as broader regulation. The charging model on the Internet after all is receiver pays.
Spam also chews up system resources like network bandwidth and disk space forcing businesses and service providers (ISPs) to over capacitate their systems.
Control of spam is an important step towards controlling open access to Internet pornography. This isn't simply because people would be less informed about porn sites. Spam is one of a number of sources of advertising pornography. Others are pop-up windows when visiting sites or good old-fashioned Internet searching. The twin issue to be tackled therefore is content-filtering, i.e. blocking access to particular Internet sites. Here, spam-filtering can overcome loop-holes in content-filtering.
To understand how, consider that content-filtering software typically uses "blacklists" which contain forbidden internet addresses (URLs). "Whitelists" could also be used to restrict access to specific URLs.
Some homes use content-filtering software (e.g., Net Nanny) while Australian ISPs are required, at the very least, to filter out "blacklisted" URLs provided through the Australian Broadcasting Authority's Online Content Co-Regulatory Scheme.
However, with 7.5 million sites coming on board a day, and with sites able to change their addresses easily, net porn suppliers stay ahead of the "blacklists". This is where spam-filtering can act as a double-whammy, for suppliers spam users with their new sites to expose their current presence. Blocking spam deprives porn suppliers of an adaptive advertising channel.
But that brings us back to the original problem: spam detection is not perfect and can over-guess. Certainly, newer computer algorithms (Bayesean) for detecting spam and pornographic sites radically improve spam and content filtering. This, of course, applies today and spammers will adapt.
A further complication is the ambiguity of what spam actually is. Not all spam is bad and may in fact be desired. This gets to the root of the problem, namely that spam regulation is not merely a technical issue, but rather a business/community problem requiring carefully thought out legal constraints.
Some measures which have been adopted in US state laws are instructive. These include restriction of falsified sender information, mandatory labelling of advertising mail, mandatory unsubscribe links in advertising mail, restrictions on email harvesting or list sharing, and opt-in for spam/content filtering at ISPs.
Noteworthy is the Australia Institute's recommendation of mandatory filtering with an opt-out provision for adults based on age verification, drew 93% support from parents in a Newspoll survey.
No measure of itself is problem-free: age verified opt-out will incur extra costs while others over-restrict. For example, a law against false header information thereby outlaws anonymity, encroaching on civil rights. On the other hand, sending bulk emails of damaging content using a fake header is unambiguously wrong.
Another example is the collection of email addresses for targeted marketing, an activity which doesn't contravene business norm but which would suddenly be illegal. Clearly, restrictions need to be qualified by the justness of the situation and presence of overtly harmful action.
Even with anti-spamming laws in place, further complexities abound. The Internet is a global entity and laws would only apply to ISPs within local boundaries. In the case of Australia, most spam is from foreign hosts (mainly US even if it passes foreign relays or uses local ISP impersonation). Another difficulty is enforcement.
Most US state anti-spamming laws have proven difficult to enforce and successful ones (e.g., Cyber Promotions) required several successful lawsuits. Moreover, most spammers even if sued don't have deep pockets and file for bankruptcy. The motivation to sue given the time and costs is consequently low, and the stiffest penalties make for scant deterrence.
From all of this we can learn that spam is not a problem in the singular, but rather a number of problems calling for a number of different remedies, both technical and legal, involving a mix of self-regulation and broader regulation. Clearly, the most urgent aspects need to be tackled first.
The good news is that Internet pornography is the least tolerated of spam in the community. It also has lesser ambiguities as to what constitutes wrongful spamming. Importantly, the existence of the ABA regulatory function has a precedence for enforcement.
Thus, on the back of confronting the wider spam problem, pre-emptive advertising of Internet pornography could come under control, and this in turn should curb pimpernels who use spam as an advertising channel to elude content-filtering. Self-regulation through content-filtering in homes and ISPs will therefore be more effective.
For anti-porn activists, the mere mention of self-regulation sounds soft, however it mobilises the fastest solution, particularly when one considers the high success rate of latest generation software filters. Rarely mentioned but highly effective post hoc monitoring for web activity could also be used in homes and small agencies.
The monitoring of web logs (containing URLs that have been accessed) for instance is applied in government departments to good effect, and should be adopted by anxious parents. Smaller businesses should also learn from bigger ones about how to protect systems from breaches (spoofing or hijacking) which allow servers to be impersonated by other (foreign) hosts.
The end game is to suffocate the visibility that gives porn suppliers cost viable existence. Most spammers are small bit players exploiting technological efficiency for large-scale reach. A well-crafted law motivated by political incentive, enforced locally and cascading to foreign regulation authorities, empowering rather than abating self-regulation, is an imperfect but powerful roadblock. Like all things on the net, trimming the margins is sometimes enough to squeeze out the skittish as rapidly as they emerge.