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February 2012

Do spam and piracy problems have a common solution?

A statistic offered during recent conference session stimulated a (then) spontaneous and somewhat provocative stream of thought. Using a very, very large sampling of spam, the presenter and his colleagues had determined that over 70% of spam targeted consumers of "life-style" drugs (non-scheduled prescription medications such as male performance enhancing drugs). This is such a staggering proportion of overall volume of spam that I immediately tried to think of another market where similarly astonishing statistics existed, to see whether there were similarities in demand-supply that made criminal activity attractive.

The answer was obvious: digital copyrights abuse. The RIAA and MPAA attribute losses to piracy that approximate or exceed spam volumes associated with life-style drugs.

RIAA/MPAA piracy "statistics"

For the record, I don't question the validity of the spam statistic because the sources in this case are academians at a reputable university conducting research under the direction of a highly respected professor. The RIAA/MPAA stats are much less trustworthy (see Cato@Liberty), but they will serve my purposes for this post.

 I began to think, "These are both problems of supply and demand, where criminals satisfy the demand in excess of supply. Is there a common way to solve the problem?". 

Some experts argue that the RIAA and MPAA make it hard and expensive to for consumers to get the entertainment they want, at the time they want it, in the forms they want, at what consumers believe is an acceptable cost.  The content suppliers  don't satisfy consumer demand and certain customers resort to "piracy".

Can one argue that the US healthcare system and the US FDA make it similarly hard and expensive for consumers to obtain life-style drugs? Like Big Content, aren't they failing to satisfy consumer demand?Are certain customers responding to spam and resorting to counterfeit life-style drugs obtained through illegal pharm sites for essentially the same reasons that people "pirate" music?

A common solution for piracy and spam?

One suggested solution to piracy is that Big Content evolve their business models and make music and movies cheaper, faster, and readily accessible in all popular mediums. Could we apply this solution to mitigate spam? Specifically, would spam volume and spam-derived revenue be affected if the US FDA allowed life-style drugs to be sold as over the counter products1?

I discussed this notion with a few experts in the spam field. One expert observed that if life-style drugs *were* OTC, then efficient, high volume online merchants could undercut the businesses that currently market these drugs "illegally". Another agreed, stating that if these products were to be offered over the counter (or perhaps even as generics), the market for the spamvertised product would collapse due to insufficient margins.

Remember, we're talking about what represents 70% of spamvertising here. And there's no obvious candidate to supplant life-style drugs. The next most spamvertised pharmaceuticals are scheduled controlled substances. The markets are much smaller and the risks dramatically higher for both consumer and supplier.

"Increase supply. Satisfy demand. Eliminate the market for counterfeit product."

Admit it. It's as interesting a ten word sound bite as any you've heard this year. And no more provocative than many you've heard from Rick Santorum:-)

1 In case it is not obvious, nowhere in this "What if?" scenario am I advocating that any drug be made over the counter without considering public health and safety.  


Is Jotform a poster child for domain shutdown overkill?

JotForm, like so many domains, is a multi-user site; specifically, the site provides a web developer community with a way to create and share web forms.  On 15 February, co-founder Aytekin Tank posted the following on the JotForm blog:

"As a part of an ongoing investigation about a content posted in our site, a US government agency has temporarily suspended our domain. We are fully cooperating with them, but it is not possible to say when the domain would be unblocked."

The details of the investigation are covered elsewhere, but for the sake of summary, reports (1,2) claim that a Secret Service agent asked (or ordered) GoDaddy to suspend name resolution for GoDaddy allegedly complied with this request without a court order. went dark, and according to Aytekin Tank, without notice.

Registrars or registries do take actions against registrants who violate acceptable use or terms of service, or when law enforcement or security practitioners involved in anticrime, antiphishing, or antispam present compelling data that expose criminal acts. Internet users mostly benefit from these actions. I'm an advocate of this practice, which is usually highly efficient and protective of the rights of domain holders and Internet users.

Collateral Damage in Virtual Space

Without commenting on whether GoDaddy or the Secret Service correctly handled the event, JotForm gives us a concrete and timely example of a domain name suspension with collateral damage to study. Let's  take a moment to consider how legislation that would compel providers to respond to every request of the JotForm kind would play out if passed, and how differently the reaction might be were a similar law enacted in the physical world.

In this event, name resolution for was suspended to prevent a JotForm user from making an alleged phishing web form available. This action did more than this. It blocked every JotForm user from creating, sharing and utilizing web forms for legitimate purposes. This is a fairly draconian act but acts of this kind are easily trivialized by anti-piracy advocates because the collateral damage can be dismissed by phrases like "it's just users" or "what's the fuss, it's just one domain name".

Collateral Damage in Meat Space

Let's consider how a similar event would play out in meatspace. An occupant of a multi-tenant dwelling is suspected of printing music CDs in his apartment. Under a Stop Piracy In MeatSpace act, the apartment building landlord receives an order to bar the building's entry doors to prevent the "pirate" tenant from entering his apartment, gaining access to (and perhaps destroying his stash of) illegal music CDs. 

Is this any more draconian than an online piracy act? Does "it's just tenants" and "it's just a single building" sound reasonable? Constitutional?  Would any politician support such legislation in the physical world?

No, no, and no. Whether virtual space or meatspace, we must exercise care in drafting legislation so that it is "scalpel" precise.