Spam Filters Threaten Free Speech on the Internet

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By James McGrath Morris
Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spam was once a simple annoyance. But its exponential growth -- reports suggest that about 90 percent of all e-mail is spam -- has led e-mail users to build daunting ramparts to block unwanted messages and companies to circulate blacklists of alleged spammers. One cannot fault people for seeking ways to avoid unwanted or aggressive solicitations, but the consequences of some anti-spam measures may not be what the people seeking protection from spam had in mind. Some efforts to block unwanted e-messages are threatening free speech on the Internet.

Consider some of my recent experiences: I publish a modest monthly newsletter, the Biographer's Craft, that is sent electronically to subscribers. My newsletter, as the name suggests, is hardly controversial.

Last month, before sending out the new issue, I ran the copy through some spam-checking software. Surprisingly, my score came back so high that many subscribers might never receive the issue.

I contacted the company that distributes my newsletter, and a staff member explained that three sets of words among the issue's many articles could derail my e-mail: a reference to "young adult," a common classification for books intended for adolescent readers; a sentence in my editorial -- "Speaking of legal matters, it's getting nasty out there" -- referring to the growing number of lawsuits; and a distinguished biographer's discussion of writing a book for children that included the following comment: "At my public library I queried the children's division librarian -- what works, what does not, who is 'hot.' "

The inclusion of "young adult," "getting nasty" and "hot" among the thousands of words in my publication was like poison. Indiscriminate spam-blocking software would spot those words, ignore the context and group my newsletter with unsolicited e-mails from purveyors of smut.

"If you would like to bring down your spam-check score," the staffer at the e-mail distribution company helpfully informed me, "you will have to replace all the mentioned text with some other words." In short, I would need to censor my publication to surmount the various spam blockers at work out there.

Granted, it wouldn't be the end of my newsletter if I had to replace "hot," "nasty," and "young adult" with other words. But if I surrender those words now, what might I be asked to give up next month? If a newsletter writer should mention, say, the "beastly behavior" of the Bush administration, if a literary publication uses the book title "Lolita" or if an investment consultant says the "rising number of low-priced stocks is swelling the ranks of investors" will they be among the next victims of this censorship?

What makes this phenomenon even more insidious is that in most cases, both the intended e-mail sender and recipients remain unaware of the censorship that spam filters impose. Only rarely is the sender informed when e-mail is quarantined or diverted. Such behind-the-scenes machinations make fighting back almost impossible.

And this silent censorship is not the only way the war against spam is harming legitimate correspondence. I recently wrote e-mail messages to two people at Columbia University. My e-mail was blocked because my Internet protocol, or IP, address was, at the time I pushed "send," listed at That company's Web site explains that the firm maintains a database of "IP addresses of verified spam sources and spam operations (including spammers, spam gangs and spam support services)." Spamhaus supplies its list free of charge "to help email administrators better manage incoming email streams."

The list is dynamic, changing all the time. When I checked again later, my IP address was no longer on it. In fact, when I ran my IP address through 125 of the most commonly used blacklists, it was not on any of them. But how many e-mail senders know whether they are on these blacklists or even know these types of lists exist? Worse, the makers of these lists do not contact those whom they damn, so senders are convicted without any chance of offering a defense.

In other words, the 1950s anti-communist blacklists, assembled without due process, have essentially returned in a new form on the Internet. What's a person do? It's getting nasty out there online, and I'm a little hot under the collar. But perhaps I'd better not say that.

James McGrath Morris is publisher of the newsletter the Biographer's Craft and is the author of a forthcoming biography of Joseph Pulitzer. His e-mail address is

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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