Spam and Net Neutrality


Spam. The bane of existence on the information superhighway. Even considering how ridiculously cheap and easy it is to send, sometimes it’s still surprising that it’s profitable at all, because everybody hates it. This year has seen great strides in the increasing effectiveness of spam filters:

Google went from mislabeling 44.1% of opt-in mail messages in the first quarter of this year to 3.3% in the third. Unfortunately, this year has also seen advances in spammers’ effectiveness as well. A New York Times article discusses new spamming techniques and reports that “spam volumes have doubled from last year.” (Sadly, I can confirm this trend in my own emailing; not every email account I have is with Gmail.)

So what does net neutrality have to do with any of this?

Well, one technique ISP’s have employed to reduce spam is the blocking of port 25. From Broadband reports:

Port 25/tcp is used for SMTP, the outgoing mail
protocol, and is often blocked by ISPs to cut down on spam (whether
intentional or due to infection). The block prevents users from sending
outgoing mail via any third party mail-hosting services. We’ve watched
what was once somewhat of a scattered practice quickly become an
industry standard over the last few years.

Port 25 blocking allows ISP’s to look at the content of email and do things like scan for viruses and catch spam. Apparently, MSN’s dialup service has taken the filtering even further and blocked all outgoing email that isn’t from an MSN server (like hotmail). Gene Herschel ran into this problem when he was in a rural area and needed to send an important email. He then wrote an article decrying the practice, going so far as to call it a violation of net neutrality. (MSN says the practice is to promote security, but Gene doesn’t buy it.)

Don’t get me wrong–that sounds like an infuriating problem. Strictly speaking, of course, Gene is right. But I’m not so sure I want to play the net neutrality card on this one. Most of the time I’m generally in favor of net neutrality laws, but it’s an extremely complex issue. This may come as a surprise to many, but there are some things that would violate net neutrality principles that are actually beneficial. For example, deep packet inspection and stream discrimination can be useful tools in maintaining security and functionality for sensitive applications. (For a thoughtful, yet dense, analysis, see this paper by Jon Peha.) This isn’t to say net neutrality is a bad thing–just that it’s complicated, and any policy designed to maintain the benefits of neutrality should take into consideration the benefits of net diversity as well.

Waving the net neutrality banner any time something about an ISP bugs us is getting a little careless and tends to move discussion away from the subtleties into a black and white, yes-or-no choice that is likely to lead to mistakes being made in implementing a policy.

As far as MSN allowing only its own outgoing email, yes, it’s annoying. If whatever security that is heightened by this practice isn’t enough to overcome the inconvenience, people will leave and MSN will get the message. But there are plenty of dialup options out there. The answer to Gene’s problem is to get another backup dialup service.

The MSN-email-only technique may not have been an effective choice, but I’m all for giving ISP’s freedom to try whatever they can think of to combat the problem of spam. The last thing I’d want to do is tie their hands in the name of net neutrality simply for net neutrality’s sake.

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