A closer look at spam

One of the benefits of the Internet is that it lowers the cost of communicating between distant users. Today, anyone takes for granted that it is possible to send an email or an instant message to any other Internet user. All these exchanges can be done at a very low cost, which enabled a wide range of activities that would have not been possible without the Internet. Unfortunately, the ridiculously low cost of sending information to any Internet user has attracted a range of fraudulent users that send unsolicited commercial or phishing messages.

The history of digital spam

In a recent article, The History of Digital Spam, Emilio Ferrara looks back at the evolution of spam over the last forty years and tries to predict its future. He concludes with three recommendations :

    1. Design technology with abuse in mind.
    1. Don’t forget the arms race.
    1. Blockchain technologies.

I agree with his first recommendation. Unfortunately, any new Internet protocol must consider possible abuse in its design and older protocols and deployments need to be reconsidered with that in mind. The arms race between the abusers and the engineers who manage and operate the infrastructure will unfortunately continue. A consequence of this arms race is that it becomes more and more difficult to operate email servers. In the past, anyone could install and operate SMTP servers to exchange emails. Today, installing and managing an SMTP server that is accepted by the SMTP servers of the large cloud providers (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, …) that dominate the email business is more than a full-time job. Furthermore, some of these cloud providers impose the utilisation of specific SMTP configurations before they accept emails. Email administrators have complained about this evolution. An unfortunate consequence of this arms race for the users is a centralisation of email among a small number of providers. Concerning the third recommendation, I’m not personally convinced that blockchain will solve all problems, but that’s another debate…

For additional information, see :

E. Ferrara, The History of Digital Spam, Communications of the ACM, August 2019, Vol. 62 No. 8, Pages 82-91

This blog post was written to inform the readers of Computer Networking: Principles, Protocols and Practice about the evolution of the field. You can subscribe to the Atom feed for this blog. These notes are also posted on the ebook’s Facebook page

Written on August 20, 2019