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Tangle Web just enough to slow spam


We spent the 20th century becoming ever more efficient, or at least quicker, at just about everything we do: traveling long distances, entertaining one another, slaughtering our fellow human beings. Could this be the century when we decide it’s time to deliberately make some things a little less efficient?

For an obvious example, take e-mail. This handy new way of communicating is so easy and efficient that it’s being hijacked by spam, the steady barrage of offers for things you don’t want. A guy looking for easy money can pour out countless spam messages for next to nothing, so he automatically adds your e-mail address to his list and keeps it there forever, irritating you just a bit more every time he says hello.

So far, we’ve fought spam by trying to filter it out. According to Discover magazine, America Online blocked nearly 500 billion spam messages in 2003 and U.S. businesses spent about $10 billion on the problem.

However, Discover also reports on another anti-spam weapon: It’s possible to slow down the e-mail process enough to make life difficult for large-scale spammers without bothering the rest of us at all. A Microsoft Corp. researcher has proposed a change in the process that would force an e-mailing computer to solve a little puzzle involving the address, the message and the date and time. So what? The way things stand now, a spam artist can pump out millions of message per day, the kind of volume you need when your offer is going to be rejected by nearly everyone who receives it. If the computer has to stop and think for 10 seconds before shooting out an e-mail, “a single computer can send only about 8,000 messages a day,” according to the magazine article.

That’s not going to cramp your style, is it? If you’re hitting the send key anywhere close to 8,000 times per day, you don’t need computer processing changes. You need an intervention.

But making those wacky “Nigerian businessmen” work a little harder for your money seems like an acceptable restraint on the Internet’s wide-open, free-for-all mode of operation.

Other elements of our lives could use some slowing down, too. For example, if we built and retrofitted cars so they had a top speed of 30 miles an hour, thousands of lives would be saved. But we’re obviously not going to do that. Let’s start with spam and go from there.

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