NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 97 November 6, 2003
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.


Struggling With Spam
Are You Cyber-Safe?
Resource Roundup
Changes At NetAction   
About NetAction Notes

Struggling With Spam

If you've got an email address, you've got spam.

The Internet passed an unwelcome milestone earlier this year when for the first time ever the volume of unsolicited commercial email, or spam, surpassed that of legitimate email. Even the most tech-savvy folks around - longtime Internet users who readily try every new tool that comes along - have begun to acknowledge the sorry state of email. So it's not surprising that the Pew Internet Project's latest survey found that spam was undermining the integrity of email and degrading online life.

According to the Pew report, spam is causing many Internet users to trust email less. Some survey respondents told Pew they are using email less because they worry that spam is making it difficult to reliably send and receive email.

If this doesn't worry you, it should.

Beyond the simple annoyance of a cluttered in-box, or the outright offensiveness of the more explicit messages, the pervasiveness of unsolicited email threatens the effectiveness of online organizing. The obvious problem is that action alerts and other time-sensitive information may be lost in a flood of spam. But the more significant reason to worry is that email could lose its effectiveness as a tool for organizing and advocacy. That would be a real loss to nonprofit organizations and grassroots activists.

As online activists we can't solve the spam problem, but we can avoid making it worse. If you use the Internet for organizing, outreach, and/or advocacy, keep the following guidelines in mind when distributing email alerts:

  1. If you manage an email list, make sure the subscriber addresses are private. Individuals who subscribe to the list should *not* be able to see the list of subscribers. If you're using an online list service or a list software program, review the user guide to confirm that the addresses can't be disclosed and won't be used by the application service provider for marketing or other purposes.
  2. If you manage an action alert list, make sure it's configured so that only the list manager can send email to the list. If subscribers can post to the list, so can spammers
  3. If you manage a discussion list and it's not moderated, consider making it a moderated list. An un-moderated list means anyone who subscribes can send a message to the list, including spammers.
  4. If you use Outlook, Eudora, or a similar email application to distribute alerts, be sure to use the "Bcc" field for the recipients' email addresses. Do not disclose the recipients' email addresses by including them in in the "To" or "Cc" field.
  5. If you're a subscriber to email alert lists and like to forward the messages to your friends and colleagues, get their permission first so you don't send them duplicates of messages they're already getting. And don't forget to forward the messages with the recipients' email addresses in the "Bcc" field so you don't disclose the addresses.

For more advice on avoiding spam when distributing email alerts, see Part 2 of NetAction's Virtual Activist training course.

As the practice of "blogging" has evolved, that, too, has become a target for spammers. Blogs that allow readers to add their own comments are becoming targets for "comment spam," which is essentially the same type of spam that shows up in Internet users' in-boxes.

In addition to making headlines, the growing spam problem has sparked numerous debates over how best to fix the problem. From filters to fines, there is no shortage of ideas on what to do about spam. Unfortunately, so far nothing has been particularly effective at stemming the tide.

Current versions of most popular email browsers include built-in filters that give users some control over what winds up in their in-box. Several types of stand-alone filter applications are also available. (We reviewed some of these options in Notes No. 89. Some Internet Service Providers highlight filtering as a selling point for their service, but when ISPs filter aggressively enough to actually prevent spam from getting through their customers may find that legitimate email won't get through, either. (See Laura Miller's "When spam filters go bad."

Earlier this year, Stanford University Law Professor Larry Lessig urged Congress to enact an anti-spam law that offered bounties for reporting spammers and promised to quit his job if the approach didn't work. More recent proposals have focused on tools that enable users to identify legitimate email, so everything else gets rejected. Privacy Forum moderator Lauren Weinstein is one proponent of this approach.

While a quick fix isn't likely, we can take comfort in the knowledge that even the experts are unhappy with the rising flood of spam and actively working on a solution.

Are You Cyber-Safe?

There's still time to participate in the follow-up to NetAction's initial survey of computer security practices in nonprofit organizations.

The survey will take about 5-10 minutes to complete. If you haven't already done so, please take a few moments now to complete it.

NetAction's first survey found that there was substantial need for improvement in computer security practices at nonprofit organizations. We subsequently published a report on the results of our survey and expanded our Virtual Activist training to provide additional educational materials based on our findings. We are conducting a follow-up to determine whether security practices have improved.

As before, your individual responses will be kept confidential. Our first survey report is here and security is discussed in Part 5 of the Virtual Activist training.

Resource Roundup

Campus Activism claims to have the world's largest online database of student activists. Whether or not that's the case, the volunteer-run site features many useful resources on organizing and advocacy and users can post information about events and campaigns on their campuses.

NPAction, a project of OMB Watch, was created to encourage nonprofit organizations to participate more actively in public policy. The site features a variety of resources and online tools to help nonprofit groups advocate for their causes.

The Organizers' Collaborative has a low-traffic technical help email list for Unix and/or Linux users. Visit here to subscribe. The list is open to anyone using Linux or Unix systems in social change work.

Summit Collaborative has compiled a nice list of Internet activism and technology planning resources.

Andy Oram writes somewhat nostalgically about the Internet's value as an information resource in "Information you can still get on the Internet."

Changes At NetAction

NetAction has a new fiscal sponsor. Effective Nov. 1, 2003, our fiscal sponsor is the Organizers' Collaborative, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit membership organization composed of activists and technically oriented people working to enhance grassroots organizing, research, and movement building by social change organizations. We encourage NetAction Notes readers to contribute to the Organizers' Collaborative by visiting the "Making a Donation" link on their web site.

About NetAction Notes

NetAction Notes is a free electronic newsletter, published by NetAction. NetAction is a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting use of the Internet for grassroots citizen action, and to educating the public, policy makers, and the media about technology policy issues.

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