The Cancer of the Internet

My annual Jotwell review is up! This year, I praise Finn Brunton’s wise and witty book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. The review nearly wrote itself; Brunton has so many clever observations and memorable turns of phrase that I had a hard time choosing which ones to quote. Here are some excerpts:

Much of Brunton’s story of spam is told through the eyes of its enemies, from the vigilantes who made tried to burn out commercial spammers’ fax machines to the modern programmers who build increasingly complex filters to identify and delete spam. Significantly, this is history through the eyes of its losers: the story of the tide as related by King Canute. Brunton conveys effectively the sheer frustration felt by anti-spam activists. The network they loved was being abused by outsiders who pointedly rejected their values, but they found themselves unable to stop the abuse. One countermeasure after another fell before the onslaught: killfiles, cancelbots, keyword filters, blackhole lists, and so many others.

Roughly the second half of the book is devoted to the remarkable technical evolution of computer-generated spam. Brunton traces the rise of keyword stuffing, hidden text, Oulipo-esque email generators, spam blogs, content farms, Mechanical Turk-fueled social spam, CAPTCHA crackers, Craigslist bots, malware as a source of spam, and online mercenaries renting out botnets to the highest bidder. This escalation-from a pair of immigration lawyers in over their heads to a “criminal infrastructure” industry (P. 195) in less than two decades-is nothing short of alarming.