Monday, November 29, 2004

I think this story about a spam-blocking screensaver is very interesting, but it has more implications than are immediately apparent.

On the one hand - cool. A way to fight back. I've been forced to change e-mail addresses before because my old one got so much spam that if I didn't check it for a week, messages would bounce because spam was taking up all the space. With my new address, I've done everything I can to be more careful about which Web sites I give it out to. I'm definitely going to download this thing. And more generally, it's pretty nice to see a problem getting solved in a free-market way. One of those "triumph of human ingenuity" things.

But on the other hand, it looks to me like this (along with many other innovations, like file-sharing) takes the rules of cyberspace in a very different direction from the rules of the real world. Protecting yourself, individual property rights, all that is perfectly fine - but this seems to be going way past the line. This screensaver doesn't just block spam, it attacks the people who are sending it - and in a way that could potentially put the burden on an innocent third party, their ISP. I mean, think about it in real world terms. How is this different from avoiding junk mail by slashing the tires of the mailman's car? Or avoiding telemarketers by cutting their phone lines? It's so much easier, of course, because spammers are pests, sleazy smut-peddlers, con artists, big faceless corporations, or all of those at once. But does that change the ethics and implications of this? Hell, put it another way - what if a spammer company wrote a computer virus that deleted spam-filtering software?

(Let me repeat the cop-out that I am no expert, that for the past five years I haven't paid any more attention to technology than the average English major, that I haven't tried using this yet. Basically, that I might not have a clue what I'm talking about.)

I think my childrens' definitions of "privacy" and "property" will be completely and totally different from my parents'. Because the current "real world" standards of those values are either impossibly high or are ridiculously easy to ignore in cyberspace. Is this good? Is it inevitable, or could it be reversed by consumer demand or governmental fiat or individual awareness? How much has already changed without most people having any idea about it? What else is changed by the fact that so much of our lives now takes place in a setting that is not literally a "place"?

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