Can the Spam: Internet Governance to the People

When times are good and we can most afford government, we need it least. Now that times are harder and we can afford government less, we really need it more. This is especially true regarding the Internet.

When times get hard, people become more desperate to get money. Crime rates go up. Fraud draws quick profits, and the criminals figure no one gets hurt. Legitimate businesses being pressed to the wall may also skirt ethics, especially in marketing. They may nail ads to utility poles instead of buying billboards, for example.

The obvious result, in the first Internet recession, will be a flood of spam like you’ve never seen. It has already started: “Fail-safe money-making system”; “Save thousands on your mortgage loan”; or “Discover the secrets of wealth on the Internet.” These are just some of the messages that arrived in my inbox in the last 24 hours.

Spam is the cholesterol in the Internet’s arteries. It costs money to store, and it costs money to transmit. Yet the senders don’t pay these costs — they’re borne by everyone else. It’s a form of theft, and it usually advertises fraud. It also damages the goodwill of every legitimate business, especially those that depend on email marketing.

Spam also works; it really does. If even one person in a million succumbs to a fraud (perhaps because he or she is as desperate for money as the spammer), the spammer profits. Spam is a flaw in the Internet’s business model. Only a strong form of Internet governance can deal with that flaw.

There are other forms of Internet crime that will thrive in an Internet recession. Unemployed programmers will turn to hacking for profit. Children will be abused for profit. Identity theft will increase exponentially. So will all types of fraud.

This happens in every recession. Hard times first grind on ethics, then on morals. When times get hard enough, anyone becomes capable of anything. Without a strong police force, the result is anarchy. In the case of the Internet, that anarchy could become an eternal night, an end to the resource.

Yet what does this industry have to defend itself? It has local laws whose enforcement are driven by local prejudices. It has a growing body of international law written by spies and cops we haven’t elected, who have no check on their power, and no more call on our loyalty than the government of China.

Even when the laws of a democracy are abused, we are bound to obey them. We may become determined to correct the injustice, and the means are in our hands to do so. This is not the case with the present scheme of Internet governance. We have no uniform rules and no democratic institutions. We are at the mercy of the powerful, on both sides of the law.

A recession is no time to be pointing this out, but it may be necessary to concentrate our minds on the problem. Without an effective government controlled by the people, no society can prosper. This includes the Internet society.

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