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Should We Spam Proxies to China? 282

Frequent Slashdot Contributor Bennett Haselton is back with a story about fighting censorship with spam. He starts "Is it OK to send unsolicited e-mail to users in China, Iran, and other censored countries, telling them about new proxy sites for getting around Internet censorship? I hasten to add that I have NOT done this, am not planning on doing it and would not have any idea how to go about it anyway. Between the various companies that offer proxy services, I don't know of anyone who is doing it (no, not even people who swore me to secrecy about it). But I think the question involves ethical issues that would not apply to most discussions of spam." Hit that big link below to read the rest of his words.

Lest there be any doubt, I hate spam, getting about 10,000 of them a week with no way to filter them without blocking at least some of my important mail as well; I've tried suing some spammers mostly without success, and humbly proposed one anti-spam algorithm which caught on like wildfire, if the wildfire were spreading through a... rainforest, in the... rain. But I am not against spam a priori (Latin for "unless they are telling me I need to add extra inches"), I'm against spam because that follows from other principles, and in some situations there is some question as to whether those principles still apply. (It is not as simplistic as saying that it is OK to spam "for the greater good". Stay with me!)

Getting back to basics: Why is spam a problem? Because the cost of receiving a message, however minor, is more than the benefits, which are usually microscopic considering the probability that a typical recipient would buy what they're selling. Take a small cost that exceeds a small benefit, multiply by millions of messages per day, and the cost exceeds the benefit by about $70 billion per year.

But, just as a thought experiment, could you conceive of a kind of spam that would not be a nuisance? Suppose you sent an e-mail to millions of people offering them free $20 bills. And you actually followed through and sent the money to anybody who claimed the offer. Then the conventional argument against spam no longer applies, because the e-mails are benefitting people more than they're costing them. It's hard to think of any real-life examples, but if you had sent out mass e-mails telling people about the refund checks for anybody who had bought a CD (it was real, I got my $13.86 in the mail in 2004), I probably wouldn't have come to your house to egg your windows.

"Aha!" some spammer is thinking, "my product does benefit people more than the e-mail costs them! I can help them refinance their homes at a low rate, to take out money they can multiply many times with my new stock tip, and then spend at my friend Tiffanee's new site to help pay her way towards her physics degree!" Wait. Let's just say that you're offering some miracle product at a low price, conferring some huge benefit on each person who buys it. The only costs of spreading your bounty to the world, are whatever advertising costs are incurred in getting the word out. But if your product is really the miracle you say it is, then the benefits to people (even after subtracting the price they paid for it), exceed the costs of the advertising.

Then you have several choices. You can spam to advertise the product. In this case, the costs of the advertising are passed on to unwilling recipients. But if the benefits your product confers are greater than the cost of getting people's attention, then you've still arguably done more good than harm to the world, even if the net effect on some individual people was harmful (on annoyed recipients who didn't end up buying your product). By forcing the advertising costs on other people, you've saved that much more money; you can pocket that benefit yourself, or if you pass on the savings in the form of reduced prices (which you may have to do in a competitive market anyway), you've basically transferred that much benefit by stealing it from the spam recipients and distributing it to your customers. So the main benefit to the world was the wonderfulness of your product, and on top of that, you stole some small benefit from a large number of people and redistributed it to other people, which has no positive or negative net effect.

But, because the benefits of the product outweigh the costs of the advertising, that means in a mostly-free country where your product is legal, you can also buy advertisements to get people's attention, pass the costs on to the customers in the form of slightly higher prices, and have benefits for them left over (otherwise they wouldn't still buy what you're selling). The customers still get the major benefit, the benefit of owning your awesome product. What's missing in this case is the small extra benefit that they were getting before, from you stealing from all the spam recipients and passing the savings on to them.

So for that reason, spammers are prohibited from saying "The benefits of my products exceed the costs of people's attention span to read about it, so it's OK for me to spam", by the reply: "If the benefits really exceed the costs, then you can buy advertising to tell people about it like everyone else."

But now the big question: Would that argument still hold if you wanted to advertise proxies to people in China and Iran?

It doesn't seem that you could use conventional channels to advertise proxies to Chinese and Iranian users. If you bought ads on Google AdSense or a similar ad-serving network, China might threaten to block all ads served from that network unless they started screening out ads for anti-censorship services (especially in the case of Google, which seems to comply with most Chinese self-censorship demands). Then there's the question of how to charge Chinese and Iranian users even small amounts for the services. It would not be a good idea to have the charges show up on their credit cards issued by Chinese banks. Paying small amounts with PayPal would be a little bit better since the charge would simply show up from "PayPal", without revealing the recipient. And since all traffic to the PayPal site is encrypted over SSL, Chinese censors wouldn't be able to detect or block users who were paying to circumvent the Great Firewall, unless they blocked all traffic to the PayPal site. But could PayPal be leaned on to provide the identities of Chinese users who were paying for circumvention services, under threat of having their site blocked otherwise? And the biggest impediment of all would be that once you start charging even $1 for a service, there's a huge dropoff in people willing to sign up, even if they would have to spend much more than $1 worth of effort to find a free alternative somewhere else.

So, if circumvention services provide enough benefit to Chinese users, maybe spamming proxy sites would do more good than harm, and if the lack of freedom in the country means that you could not sell or advertise the services to Chinese users by conventional means, maybe that means spamming the proxy locations would be the only way to do this.

Reading over this, I just realized that if you also believed that pot was beneficial to society, this could also justify spamming to advertise pot. I expect we'll all start getting marijuana spam just as soon as the pothead reading this gets around to it... on, like Tuesday... maybe. Just make sure they don't really get their act together enough to get pot legalized, because if that happens, they lose their rationale for spamming to advertise it! (Thinking about the pot question more seriously, I'd say that if the government banned sales and advertisements of something beneficial like milk, then spamming to advertise milk would be a good thing. The only real argument against spamming for pot is that it isn't as beneficial as milk.)

So that's the mathematical argument in a nutshell:

  1. Spam is bad because the costs to society are greater than the benefits. This would not be the case if you were spamming to advertise something whose benefits were greater than the costs of the spam.
  2. However, in a mostly-free country where your product is legal to sell, #1 should never be used to justify spamming, because if the benefits of your product are really greater than the costs of the advertising, you can pay for the advertising, add the costs on to the cost of the product, and still have benefits left over to split between the seller and the customer.
  3. #2 is not true in non-free countries like China, in which case if a product conferred more benefits than the costs of the spam but was not legal to sell, it might be OK to spam it.

Perhaps this logic is flawed, and I'm sure some people will tell me why they think so. The other question is whether these circumvention services really provide as much benefit to the Chinese and Iranians as those of us who run the services would like to believe. Earlier I argued that the real obstacle to most anti-censorship services is apathy on the part of the target audience, and that it was an unpleasant surprise, when I found some Chinese users on MSN Messenger to ask for help with some technical issue, to find that most of them either supported the Chinese government's censorship or didn't care enough to do anything about it. So for proxy spam to be defensible, it should -- come on, all together now, I can't believe I'm quoting the members of the industry that is the bane of my existence -- include an unsubscribe link that users can click to stop receiving any further e-mails. And a postal return address! Because who could have any cause to complain about an unsolicited e-mail that includes the sender's full mailing address in the footer?

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Should We Spam Proxies to China?

Comments Filter:
  • Short answer (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:10PM (#20293649)
    Is it OK to send unsolicited e-mail to users [...]

  • Flawed reasoning (Score:4, Informative)

    by Billosaur ( 927319 ) * <(wgrother) (at) (> on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:30PM (#20293963) Journal

    As you might note, most of the comments are negative to the idea, for the simple reason that it's dumb. You stand to become the Jehova's Witnesses of the Internet. But it's not the method, or even the fact that it seems like a reasonable idea that makes it truly flawed. The flaw is in the audience you are trying to target. The people of China have been living with this form of government for quite a while now and despite dissension by a vocal but oppressed minority, there are no signs of change in the way that country works. We are talking a total population of 1.3 billion people, of which a tiny fraction actually have Internet access or even a reasonable idea what the Internet is. In many cases, you'd be preaching to the choir, the techno-savvy Chinese who understand the intricacies of the Net and who yearn for the freedom to use it as anyone else does. But if you're planning to fient some kind of revolution and bring freedom to the Chinese, then you are wasting your time and marking yourself for reprisal.

    Revolution, any revolution, must come from within. Enough people must want change to make it reasonable. Chinese society is not built that way, not will it change any time soon.

  • by mckyj57 ( 116386 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @01:27PM (#20294643)
    This whole analysis is flawed because spamming by definition is done without permission. Since you don't seek permission, anyone can decide their spam offers a net benefit, even if it does not. Since the cases where it is beneficial are so few -- I point to the VA Research Open Source stock offer as one that was, even though it wasn't really spam -- the net result is a cost and not a benefit.
  • by Flambergius ( 55153 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @02:24PM (#20295293)
    1) Is spamming wrong a priori?

    My first instinct is: no, spamming is not wrong in itself, but only due to its secondary effects. Sending an unsolicited email is not destructive or hurtful to any one person, receiving one is only annoying. In most case one should avoid annoying very many people at once, but I fail to see how that would be wrong in a priori moral sense. In practice, spamming has a cost on societal level that must be considered prohibitive in any but the most extreme circumstances.

    My second instinct is that it is possible that spamming crosses the line in regards to the receivers right to self-determination. In that case it would be wrong a priori ... however, that feels rather weak. If one was to demand such a high level of self-determination then how would one function in society.

    2) Should we spam anti-censorship information to China?

    Probably not, for various practical reasons, most of which have been raised here already.

    Even when a otherwise workable plan is conceived one should be very cautious about actually acting. Governments are very touchy when their sovereignty (including their ability to oppress their own people) is challenged. A spam campaign spreading truthful and censored information into China may have unintended consequences far beyond simple cost calculations. I for one don't want to see Internet militarized - although that may well be a hopeless wish.

    In closing, I must note my disappointment at the level of discussion. I have seldom seen people getting moderated so highly with so little understanding of what the fundamentals of the discussion are. Ethics are damn hard, fair enough, but not having a clue what a priori and a posteriori mean is just intellectual laziness. It's also no excuse that the issue is your pet peeve, if ever that's when your worth as an intelligent and ethic person is measured.

  • Re:Responsibility (Score:3, Informative)

    by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @02:30PM (#20295375)
    Hasn't China, in the past, executed people who were convicted of intentionally bypassing the Great Firewall

    Where did you hear this? On talk radio perhaps? Please cite something authoritative (a news agency, or even a human rights group) to support this allegation.

    China can be pretty oppressive, but this is far beyond anything I've ever heard -- and I live in Hong Kong, which is not censored, but we do hear a lot of what goes on in the mainland.

    Anyway, as to TFA's suggested spam to tell people about proxies: What an idiotic idea. Anyone in China with the ability and desire to use a proxy can find it for themselves easily, without some naive dogooder sending lists of sites out that will just alert the authorities which sites to block.

  • Re:Responsibility (Score:3, Informative)

    by Verteiron ( 224042 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @03:29PM (#20296053) Homepage
    Actually, I had two facts mixed up in my head.

    1) China executes computer-using criminals (media reported as hackers) who embezzled money: ll97-papers/kim-crime.html [] (search for "Shi Biao", or just Google "hacker Shi Biao")

    2) China treats those who bypass its censorship harshly: []

    Somewhere I got the idea that the "hackers" were executed for bypassing the Great Firewall. My mistake. However, China -does- punish those who bypass its censorship controls and thus I think my original point remains valid; anyone that receives lists of proxy servers is in danger of being harassed by the government for it.
  • by mqduck ( 232646 ) <mqduck@ m q d u c k . n et> on Monday August 20, 2007 @05:52PM (#20297657)

    Well I'd be careful about calling Iran's government democratically elected. There's no question they had an election, but that doesn't mean the people were free to choose their government. Many a dictatorship has been known to hold phony elections for political reasons.
    This is true, but it's a fact that there are real contests in elections and that the republican government runs things for the most part.

    Also, the president isn't the head of Iran's government, the Supreme Leader is
    Also true, but it's a bit like a constitutional monarchy. It's becoming increasingly questionable whether the Ayatollah really has the political authority to e.g. dismiss parliament anymore.

    Freedom House rates Iran as being not free and a 6 of 7 (7 being the worst) in political and civil liberties.
    Freedom House is US propaganda, pure and simple. Always has been, always will be.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?