The end-to-end design principle and the real tragedy of spam

Every now and then there is a real e-mail message in the midst of my spam. It used to be that every now and then there would be a spam message in the midst of my real e-mail. Spam is a really serious problem for me. I'm not alone.

As I write this, I am in the midst of investigating a variety of anti-spam techniques. As a consequence, my head is swimming in pop3 proxies, Bayesian analysis and whitelist methodologies. Wading through all of this stuff, one thought strikes me very forcefully. All the technological solutions to the spam problem seem to address the problem at point of receipt. They concentrate on filtering out the spam *after* the spam has been created and sent. In other words, after the bandwidth has been consumed. All that lovely bandwidth - what a waste! Even if I managed to set up a filtering system so that I never saw a spam message in my in-box, the sucking noise of bandwidth disappearing needlessly out of the Internet's exhaust pipe would sit uneasily with me.

Unfortunately, addressing the problem with technology applied to the routing side (in order to catch spam before it consumes so much bandwidth) also sits uneasily with me. That is because solving the problem in the network itself would involve breaking a key principle that underlines the way the Internet works. I'm thinking of the so called 'end to end principle' of system design. This simple principle states that clever stuff should be on the edges of a distributed system rather than in the middle. Clever stuff in the heart of a distributed system design is hard to change and hard to maintain. Every time you need to revisit your network to do something else with it, you end up making changes in its core. This is both expensive and error prone. By contrast, if the clever stuff is on the edges of the network, you can make modifications more easily. Remember instant messaging? Gnutella? Clever stuff can happen on the edges of the Internet because the core functionality of the Internet is, by design, very, very basic. The Internet routes packets without regard to what those packets are.

In the case of spam, there is another reason why it is not a good idea to add spam technology to the core of the network. What if a real message gets inadvertently filtered as spam? If the network took it upon itself to remove it you would never catch the false positives. Not good.

So, can we rid the world of spam without sacrificing all the bandwidth required by receipt-side filtering? I'm having trouble seeing a technological solution that does not compromise the end-to-end principle. Perhaps I've missed something but at the moment it seems to me stopping spammers from spamming in the first place is the only way to both preserve the bandwidth and remove the spam.

Perhaps receipt-side filtering technology will get so good that spammers will just give up - thus giving us back the bandwidth? I have my doubts. But if that doesn't work I think we are left with legislation as the only alternative.

I hope I'm wrong.

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