Notes: Using Uncensored Communication Channels to Divert Spam Traffic, January 31, 2008

This was a presentation given by Benjamin Chiao from the University of Michigan – he’s currently a PhD student at their Information School, but also has an economic background, which is where much of this talk was couched.

  • What’s the point of solving spam problem? Less time sorting spam, less economic cost for blocking spam, customers spend less money
  • $10 billion/year spent on spam related technologies
  • What is uncensored/open channel? keep inbox filters, no filters in special folder, guarantee delivery of messages into folder
  • Properly tagged messages will automatically be assigned to a folder/label
  • No new technological infrastructure required and fully reversible
  • Existing mechanisms to prevent spam: legal punishment, filters
  • Proposal of the open channel: decrease benefits of spamming by decreasing the number of recipients
  • Economics: micro-economic model shows open channels increase benefits to recipients, advertisers
  • This is not a unique mechanism – Chiao compared it to TV shopping channels: you don’t have to watch, but the information is constantly there
  • Open channel is like web sites – anyone can post
  • Not excluding the possibility of search within the open channel
  • Sender tags sent messages (as being part of the channel? This wasn’t clear in the talk)
  • The definition of spam used here specifically targets unsolicited commercial mass e-mails – no other message types are considered here
  • Current spam volumes are between 80-90% of total network traffic – 40% advertise medications, 19% is adult content, 41% other (according to Evett 2006
  • Spammers continue because they are economically supported – there’s a point where the supply of spam must meet demand
  • Why do we need open channel? Why not just search for the content via existing search engines? Sites selling these products disappear too quickly: 30% of domains created die within a day (according to MessageLabs 2005)
  • Spammers need to keep pushing information to inboxes because they must move rapidly due to legal reasons
  • 60% of spam messages are sent by zombies – computers hijacked for the explicit purpose of sending spam
  • The CAN-SPAM Act has essentially legalized spamming
  • The open channel proposal separates the current e-mail ecosystem into two ecosystems – one “open” (the proposal) and one “traditional” (the current model)
  • Audience observation: this system assumes that EVERY e-mail system implements the open-channel concept
  • Current technology already partially implements this idea (sort of)
  • Spammers might be happier on open channel! 😀
  • This is still a theoretical idea
  • Essentially create two channels: one open and one censored (I’m not clear on whether the “channels” are analogous to the “ecosystems” mentioned above)
  • E-mail recipients opt in to the open channel in order to maximize their own utility
  • The sender gets its current revenue from the advertising charge times the number of mails received
  • The sender’s current cost is the constant reestablishment of sending channels (zombies)
  • The open channel attempts to establish equilibrium between advertisers and receivers of spam (note that advertisers, senders, and receivers are independent parties)
  • There is not just a supply curve but a demand curve for UCM
  • The open channel method induces UCM to move out of the current e-mail system

I’m not sure Benjamin gave sufficient background to make any of us fully appreciate the idea – there’s two problems with it that I can see: first, it exists within the reality of economics, not the reality that we commonly deal with. Thus, it’s governed by the same economic laws that give me such a headache in PB AF 594, and understanding the concept requires a suspension of our own realities in order to appreciate the laws that govern the proposal. The second problem is that it’s not clear how this can be implemented within the current system. Is this a system that merely adds a tag to all messages that identify it as open-channel or “traditional”? How do you physically separate the two ecosystems without actually modifying the current e-mail structure, and how do you enforce proper usage of both ecosystems? An honor system in which we assume that the senders, the receivers, and the advertisers are all working to maximize their own utility (basically their net happiness) is perfect in economic theory because economic theory establishes that everyone will strive towards some theoretical maximum benefit, but in reality, it just doesn’t seem possible.

There was one thing that I want to follow up on – Benjamin mentioned the Attention-Bond Mechanism (Loder 2006) in his talk, so I’ll have to look up exactly what that entails (it’s a concept related to the acceptance or rejection of e-mail messages).

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