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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:
  • Consent, not Content (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kelson ( 129150 ) * on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:10PM (#20293659) Homepage Journal
    If they didn't ask for it, and you still blast it out to a bunch of people, it's still unsolicited bulk email -- in other words, it's still spam.

    Besides, think of the unintended consequences: You'd be making users used to accessing random proxies. How long before the malware writers start spamming "Hey, use our proxy!" and advertising their fake proxy which will send most traffic through, but will sniff usernames and passwords, and redirect certain sessions to phishing sites?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:23PM (#20293857)
    America has almost no independant/unbiased media, which effectively amounts to right wing censorship. Apply the same argument there, and then you would believe that you are justified in spamming americans. This is however utter nonsense. I work with several people from mainland China, and if anything, they are far more politically aware, and rational thinkers than most americans. No government can censor everything in a connected world. Why single out China. The Chinese government is doing more for the living standard of ordinary Chinese people than the US government is doing for ordinary Americans. Both countries are terrible human rights abusers, but at least China doesn't pretend to be a 'democracy'.
    Keep you spam to yourself. Spam is a crime that deserved to be punished by a slow and brutal tortured death.
    Die spammer. Die, die, die.... die, die, die.
  • by hachiman ( 68983 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:24PM (#20293879)
    Go one step further... You, the governtment of a country that employs censorship, set up your own proxy and start spamming people in your own country about it. They log on to use it and, hey presto! You have their name, IP etc and can subtly keep an eye on what they are getting up to. After that, it's child's play to send out the heavy mob with the mini-van to go and collect the subversives.

    Mind you, that's just being plain cynical. Surely no govertment would ever dream of doing something so sneaky or as bad as trying to entrap its own population so that it can quash people that think differently from the people in charge.

    Hang on...
  • Totally unneccesary (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:28PM (#20293935)
    Though it might sound surprising, the majority of Chinese internet users don't feel "oppressed" by the Great Firewall - just inconvenienced and maybe annoyed some times.

    Anyone in China who feels he has a need to use proxy servers to access blocked sites knows where to find a good proxy list. Those lists aren't no secrets - they're not even forbidden.
  • by sshore ( 50665 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:29PM (#20293939)
    The question can be easily turned around - is it okay to send unsolicited emails to the US, UK, and other similar countries, encouraging users to engage in subversive acts for which they could be fined or imprisoned, because you disagree with a policy of their government? What would you think of a foreigner or foreign agent who did that? What impact might it have? Think of all the people who say "I block all email from China because I receive spam from there." A closely related question is whether politically- or idealogically-motivated spam is okay, if one assumes that commercially-motivated spam is not. My feeling is that unsolicited bulk email is never okay - it raises the noise floor in an already noisy medium.
  • by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:35PM (#20294019)
    The OP was really asking the wrong question.

    The question should have been "What are the best ways to help interested Chinese find information the help them circumvent government censorship?.

    One way might be to make such information available on websites visited by Chinese. Instead of a proxy IP address, a picture of that IP address might help evade automated searches. Remember how the "Devils Own" XP key was distributed as a .jpeg? Sites could carry "informative pictures" and update them frequently.
  • 1) It is still unsolicited e-mail. You may think that there's something I really, really want. You may believe to the core of your being it is something I care about. You may still be wrong. There may well be people in those restricted countries that just don't give a shit. Perhaps all of the web they care about is allowed through the filters. Thus they really don't want to hear from you.

    Well then, the whole idea of subverting (covertly, overtly, or even militarily) a nasty government (even when its nastyness is not in doubt) is wrong — because there are always people, who agree with and support it and who will be annoyed, inconvenienced, or even killed in the process.

    2) More importantly e-mail is not secure. The government will find out, they will monitor the spam, and they will use that to either block your proxies or arrest those that use them or whatever.

    I really wish a method to reliably do what you describe existed. It would an end to the spamming problem, at least. Then I'll accept subverting the oppressive governments the old-fashioned way — via radio and TV broadcasts...

  • Re:it's still spam (Score:3, Interesting)

    by InsaneProcessor ( 869563 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @12:49PM (#20294163)
    Since most of the spam that I get links to web sites in China, and come from China, spam to china may not be a bad thing here. Let them get a dose of what they spit out.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 20, 2007 @01:15PM (#20294507)
    But since I can see how you were immediately modded as flamebait and I can predict my post will get the same treatment, I'm going to go annon.
            This whole American obsession with the "Great Firewall" is really absurd and misplaced to anyone who has actually lived in China as I have done for many years. Getting around the blocks is trivial. It's a merely symbolic thing basically saying hey these topics are off limits. Within China you would have to be blind to not know how to find out the latest scoop on the groups that are specifically targeted by the media ban like the Fa Lwun Gong or Tibetan activists. Their messages are, if anything, amplified by the policy which is why it is implemented in such a half ass way. There's no real motivation to make it iron clad because it's obvious to the powers that be that the harder they push the more they strengthen the hand of these groups and encourage new ones to form. The idea is to turn down their volume, not to amplify their strength.
              It's the American nut jobs who think it's some kind of total media ban and that the Chinese are wholly ignorant of the great free world outside their hellish prison island. The image of the Berlin Air Lift seems kinda etched into their memories of how the world is. That was the nineteen forties. It's really not like that anymore.
          In fact, people in China get free-to-air satellite TV with hundreds of channels and even free hardcore porn 24-7. Americans don't even know what free-to-air satellite is. America is the only country in the world that doesn't get free-to-air satellite. The land of the free. Yeah right.
          Furthermore, people in China these days get way cheaper and faster broadband than what you get in the States. Yeah, there are blocks on some web sites, but people can exchange whatever torrents they like. Yeah, that's right, the Chinese use bittorrent to trade files just like Americans and Europeans. If you think the people of China are blind to what's going on in the world, you're just wrong. They probably have better access to news than most Americans.
          Finally, I would like to echo Noam Chomsky by pointing out that the greatest restriction on free expression in the media that was ever created in human history is called advertising. Now that is fucking repression.
  • by janrinok ( 846318 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @01:37PM (#20294783)

    You are assuming that no-one in China has already solved this problem. Perhaps they have, but they are hardly likely to start shouting about how clever they are, are they? They have some very good programmers. I suspect that they are way ahead of needing your well-intentioned but misguided support.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 20, 2007 @01:44PM (#20294873)
    Hasn't China, in the past, executed people who were convicted of intentionally bypassing the Great Firewall and proving the means to do so to others? Will the people who receive lists of proxy servers be punished for possessing them? If not, could China begin to use such punishment as a deterrent to those sending the lists out?

    Then it would would make great sense to only send such proxy list spam to only members of the Chinese government, especially to all their police.
  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @01:57PM (#20294993) Homepage Journal

    Remember, kids, you don't have to kill everyone who breaks the law. You just have to kill a handful as an example to the rest of them, and the others will fall in line like sheep. Sad, but true.

    Of course, the reverse is also true. You don't have to bomb the capital of every country that violates the basic human rights of its citizens to make a point. You just have to bomb one (pick a small, easy target like Iraq) and then tell China "keep this crap up and you're next". Of course, with China being a nuclear power, that's probably not a good thing to insinuate. That probably means it will happen soon, and we're all screwed.

  • by Vancorps ( 746090 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @02:03PM (#20295047)

    So you're saying World War I and II didn't work? You did rarely so we could call them exceptions to the rule. The problem is your statement is that your advocating isolationism and that simply doesn't work as it gives an economy no direction for it to grow. That is why the U.S. is involved in so many countries because our economy depends on growth. If companies with public share holders weren't required to make the most profit then we could probably find something sustainable within our own borders. Until the underlying greed is vanquished this will never happen.

    Also, the people in North Korea I think see fit that their government is good for them and is serving in their best interests because they aren't educated in the alternatives. While the U.S. is far from perfect we are still free to see any and all alternatives and talk about them openly. It would be great to be able to leave other countries alone but when you depend on them for food on your table that is what you get.

    Look at all the people calling for us to intervene with Darfur. A great cause and one we could probably do a lot of good in but it is us butting into another country's business. You had Somalia and Kosovo in more recent history. Neither situations resulted in a complete turn around but don't people have to try? Same goes with Afghanistan. Iraq is a different sad issue. War is never successful but it almost always leads to some pretty massive changes for good and bad.

    Isolationism didn't work for us before, I don't think anything has changed that would make me thing is would work now. Picking our battles more intelligently would be a better move in my opinion.

  • by p7 ( 245321 ) on Monday August 20, 2007 @02:50PM (#20295627)
    I was thinking along the same lines. This plan gives the government a lot of options. Subvert it as you mention, block it, monitor who uses it, and the list goes on. It would be like advertising a dead drop site and what signals to use, in the newspaper. It is compromised from the start.
  • by pete-classic ( 75983 ) <> on Monday August 20, 2007 @04:48PM (#20297013) Homepage Journal
    I actually have a shitload of rules about approaching women for just this reason. (And probably because I want to avoid it, due to anxiety.) For example, I won't hit on a woman at her place of employment.

    If I had a woman's phone number or email address for a non-dating related reason I would not use it to pursue her in that way. I think it is very much the same.

    And I think there is a tacit opt-in to being hit on or asked out by being in certain social situations. Being at a party without a date is opting in for being hit on.

    There is an opt-out list. Wear a ring on your left ring finger. (And like all opt-out lists, the most scummy will ignore it!)


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