[Marxism] Political censorship via spam filtering

Einde O'Callaghan einde at gmx.de
Wed May 4 15:25:32 MDT 2005


Les Schaffer wrote:
> Carlos A. Rivera wrote:
> 
>> Furthermore, he indicates that all of these messages come from mailing 
>> lists. As a general rule, messages sent to multiple recipients or 
>> mailing lists automatically score higher in Spam scores, and from 
>> there it just requires a little typo here and there and voila, there 
>> is a "suspected spam".
> 
> 
> 
> i have yet to see a case brought to my attention that turned out to be 
> anything other than garden variety mishandling by an AOL or other ISP.
> 

I think it's necessary to read the whole article before passing 
judgement since it's based on discussions with senior managers of his 
ISP. I've hterefore taken the liberty of including it below

Einde O'Callaghan

Text:
Dear Friend,
The issue I am writing to you about is of the utmost importance and
seriousness: it involves a grave threat to our freedom of expression
and communication. In brief, it concerns a sinister imposition of
US-based, but world-wide, political censorship in the guise of
"filtering of spam".

As we all know, the problem of spam (unwanted email, some of it
distasteful or noxious) has reached enormous proportions and has
become not only a nuisance, but -- by clogging the email system -- a
real danger to free email communications.

Faced with this situation, various remedies are being tried.

One of the simplest and safest is a filter built into certain email
software packages that a user has in his/her own computer. For
example, Eudora, the email software I use on my computer, has an
in-built device for segregating incoming messages suspected as spam.
(This software assigns a "spam score" to each incoming message, and
you can fix a threshold such that messages assigned score above it
are segregated from the rest.) These are filed in a separate in box,
where they can be rapidly inspected; the false positives (ie messages
falsely suspected as spam) can be transferred to an ordinary in box,
and the remaining ones (real spam) deleted.

Conversely, the false negatives (spam messages undetected as such by
the filter) can be transferred into the spam box. This clever piece
of software can "learn" from experience: in future it will reduce the
"spam score" of messages similar to those you have detected as false
positives, and increase the "spam score" of messages similar to those
you have detected as false negatives.

This solves your problem, as email user. But there remains a big
problem for internet service providers (ISPs). Your ISP is the
service through which you get and send your email. In many cases you
can tell a user's ISP from his/her email address. For example, you
can see from my email address that my ISP is KCL: King's College,
London. (To be precise, it is the Information Services and Systems --
ISS -- unit at KCL.)

All ISPs are nowadays inundated by gigantic quantities of spam
addressed to their clients. In order to overcome this overload, ISPs
are resorting to filtering spam, so that it is blocked by them,
before reaching you, the user.

These filters are of two kinds. The more benign kind sends the
suspected spam to a "quarantine" (usually managed by a commercial
company, not by the ISP itself), where you, the addressee, can still
inspect it (via an internet browser, eg Netscape or Explorer) and
release the false positives, which are then sent to your in box as
originally intended by the sender. You can also delete the remaining
real spam; or, if you don't, the manager of the quarantine will
delete it after a period of a few days. In other words, this kind of
filter works much like a filter of the mail software in your own
computer, except that you have to go to the internet to sort out the
false positives from the real spam. And you still get a few false
negatives -- real spam that your ISP's filter fails to detect as
such. This kind of filter is used by my ISP at KCL. The commercial
firm that manages the filtering is Spam Manager, and is based in the
US.

The less benign form of filtering is that whereby the ISP simply
blocks the suspected spam message and dumps it into a black hole
(cyberspace's virtual Guantanamo Bay). You, the addressee, cannot get
it released by any simple procedure. You don't even get to know that
it has been blocked, unless you are informed by the sender (who may
get a "bounce" notice saying that the intended addressee has not
received the message). America On Line (AOL) an IT mega-giant, uses
this kind of filtering. If AOL is your ISP, this is how some of the
email addressed to you gets blocked.

Over the last few weeks, since my ISP has started to use the Spam
Manager filter, I began to notice something rather disturbing: quite
consistently, the false positives that I found in my quarantine box
(at the Spam Manager website) were messages sent to me by human
rights and peace groups. These were newsletters sent by these groups
to subscribers only, of whom I am one. It appeared that these groups
-- or some material included in their newsletters -- are classified
by the filter as "objectionable" and quarantined as "spam".

The most outrageous instance of this was a message sent to me by
Amnesty International, to whose newsletter I subscribe. The message,
whose subject line was "One year after Abu Ghraib, torture continues"
and was dated 29 April 2005, was quarantined by Spam Manager as
"suspected spam"!!! Other cases included newsletters sent to me by
Israeli peace/human rights groups, and by a journalists' club based
in London (established in 2003 to support those journalists,
cameramen and photographers throughout the world who risk their lives
in the course of their work).

I then noticed another strange thing. I often send to my friends
material concerning human rights, especially in connection with the
Middle East. In particular, I forwarded to these friends some
newsletters from the human rights and peace groups mentioned above --
messages I released from the Spam Manager quarantine. I soon received
a "bounce" notice from AOL, telling me that those of my friends who
have AOL as their ISP had not received my messages, as they were
classified as "spam". (These friends were told nothing by AOL; they
did not know my messages to them were blocked until I informed them
of this.)

It appeared that these human rights and peace groups -- or something
included in their messages -- had been put on a black list used by
both Spam Manager and AOL. Moreover, the reason for blacklisting was
evidently political.

By careful controlled experiments with sending such material to one
of my friends who has an AOL email address, we discovered that -- at
least in some cases -- what was blacklisted was not the email address
of the original sender (an Israeli peace/human rights group) nor the
main text of the message, but the URL (internet address) of the
original sender's web-site, which was included as a clickable link in
the message. When I tried to forward to him the original message
intact, it was blocked by AOL; when I removed the link, the message
got through. QED.

After some frustrating email exchanges with the person in charge of
my ISP, I had a face-to-face meeting with two of the very senior
people in that unit.

They confirmed that not only Spam Manager and AOL, but other ISP spam
filters world-wide, use the same black list, which is US-based. It
also transpired that the whole drive for this had come from the US
administration. (I understand that the US has applied pressure on all
concerned to use that US-based black list.) This black list is fed
into a program that automatically filters and defines as "spam"
message containing blacklisted item.

Apparently, the black list consists of  "objectionable" email
addresses, URLs (addresses of websites), words and phrases. Of
course, most of these are really politically neutral and their
presence on the black list quite legitimate, or at least acceptable.

But the black list evidently also contains items whose presence there
is politically motivated. The two senior people whom I met were
unable to tell me what exact criteria are used for blacklisting:
apparently this is a Great Commercial Secret, which is a sealed book
even to them.

But they confirmed that it would be possible for some malicious
person (or, more likely, group of persons), motivated by political
hostility, to complain to their ISP that, say, some website contains
"objectionable" material, for the URL of this website to be
blacklisted.

Or -- even more disturbing -- Big Bushy Brother Himself can order an
item to be blacklisted. Undoubtedly, this is used to stifle and
muzzle "inconvenient" political discourse, mainly concerned with the
violation of human rights and displaying disrespect to BBB.

Once an item gets blacklisted, it is very hard indeed to get it
whitelisted. It is a matter of "guilty until proven innocent". And
you can imagine how hard it is to prove innocence. Apparently, you
have to provide impossibly stringent guarantees for the future good
behaviour of, say, the owner of the blacklisted URL. Might as well
forget it, I was told (not in so many words, of course).

Now, what can you do about this outrage?

First of all, make it widely known. Evil triumphs when decent people
stay silent.

If you feel as I do, please forward this message to your friends.

Second, make sure that your ISP does not simply dump "suspected spam"
addressed to you. If it does, complain. If this doesn't help, move to
another ISP, one that uses no filtering at all or the relatively more
benign kind.

Third, if you get a "bounce" message telling you that a message you
sent has been blocked as "spam", let the addressee know about it.

Finally, be prepared for the next phase in the battle for free speech
and communication. My hunch is the BBB will eventually apply enormous
pressure on all ISPs to use the less benign form of "spam filtering".

Best wishes,

M Machover




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