Monday, November 29, 2010

Holes in the Web

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WorldWideWeb, thinks we should worry about several threats to the Web’s continued integrity and usefulness. When someone of this importance says there are things to worry about, we should at least listen to him. I for one think he has some good points, which I will now summarize from a recent article he wrote in Scientific American magazine.

The first threat Berners-Lee points out is the practice of creating what he calls “silos” of information on the otherwise universally accessible Web. Facebook, iTunes, and similar proprietary sites treat information differently than a typical website does. The original intent was that every bit of information on the Web could be accessed through a URL, but as those (such as myself) who have no Facebook page have discovered, there is information inside Facebook that only people who have Facebook pages can gain access to. And the iTunes database of information about songs and so on is accessible only through Apple’s proprietary software of the same name.

The second threat he sees is the potential breaching of the firewall between the Web (which is a software application) and the Internet (which is basically the networking hardware used to run the Web). Again, the original intent was that once you pay for an Internet connection of a certain speed, you are able to access absolutely anything on the Web just as easily as anyone else with the same speed of connection. This is called “net neutrality” and recently it has been under attack by institutions as powerful as Google and Verizon, who as Berners-Lee points out, moved last August to create special rules for Internet connections using mobile phones. They say that the limited spectral bandwidth of mobile phones makes it necessary for companies to discriminate (e. g. charge extra) for certain types of applications, or make it harder for users to access sites that are not part of the institution’s own setup.

One motivation for Berners-Lee’s cautions is an old communications-network principle that dates back to the early days of the telephone. Larger communications networks are more valuable to the users than smaller ones, but the value increases faster than just the number of users. Since each new user can not only gain access to all the others, but all the other users can also access the new user, the usefulness of a network tends to increase as the square of the number of users. That is, a network with 20 users is not twice as useful as one with ten, but four times as useful. Extrapolate this to the billions that apply to the Web, and you see how organizations that persist in walling off information and users may reap some short-term selfish benefits, but at a cost to the usefulness of the Web as a whole.

The last major concerns that Berners-Lee voices are matters of privacy and due process. There is now a way to crack open the individual packets of information that carry Web traffic and associate particular URLs with particular users. He sees this as a major privacy threat, although it isn’t clear how widely it’s being used yet. Another thing that threatens the freedom of people to use the Web is a recent trend by some European governments to cut off Web access to people who are even suspected of illegal downloading of copyrighted material. No trial, no defendant in court, no hearing: just a company’s word that they think you did something wrong. Since access to the Web is now as taken for granted as access to electricity, Berners-Lee sees this as a violation of what in Finland is now regarded as a fundamental human right: the right to access the Web.

These warnings need to be taken seriously. As director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the organization that is formally charged with the continued development of the Web, Berners-Lee is in a good position to do something about them. But he can’t control the actions of private companies or governments, so consumers and voters (at least in countries where votes mean something) will have to go along with his ideas to make a difference.

The Web is a new kind of creature in political, governmental, and economic terms. There has never before been a basically technical artifact which is simultaneously international in scope, beyond the regulatory authority of any single governmental entity, not produced by a single firm or monopolistic group of firms, and fundamentally egalitarian in nature without any controlling hierarchy. Of course, a good deal of the nature of the Web was expressly intended by its founder, who because of his youth at the time he developed it (he was only 35) is still very much with us and able to give helpful suggestions on this, the twentieth anniversary of the Web. (For those who care, Berners-Lee got the first Web client-server connection running on Christmas Day, 1990.)

What actually happens with the Web in the future, therefore, depends in a peculiar way on what its own users decide, and to much less of a degree what private companies or governments choose to do. There is probably much good in that way of doing things, since it prevents anything from happening that violently opposes the will or desires of the majority of users. But it also builds in a lot of immunity from what you might call reform efforts that go against common but less than salutary desires: the need to reduce Web pornography traffic, for instance.

For better or worse, Sir Timothy (he was knighted by his native England in 2004) has impressed a good deal of his open-source, egalitarian philosophy on his brainchild the Web, which has grown vastly beyond his initial expectations. As any good father does, he wants his child to grow and prosper and be a good citizen. Now that you have heard some of Berners-Lee’s cautionary words, you can do your part, however minor, to see that this happens.

Sources: The December 2010 issue of Scientific American carried Berners-Lee’s article “Long Live the Web” on pp. 80-85. It can also be accessed (without charge!) at the Scientific American website

Monday, November 22, 2010

An Open Letter In Response to Stephen H. Unger’s Essay “Unwanted Newborns: A Painful Problem”

Dear Steve,

Your “Ends and Means” essays are always worth reading, and I appreciate being on your email list. I value the experience of being on the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology board with you for a time, and it has been a privilege to know one of the founding fathers of engineering ethics. It is with that same sense of collegiality and fair discussion which we shared in SSIT board meetings that I undertake to disagree with you regarding your latest essay, “Unwanted Newborns: A Painful Problem.”

I will first try to restate your argument as accurately as I can. Your analysis is basically an exercise in utilitarian ethics, and its underlying premise is that actions are to be judged according to whether they accrue to the greater happiness of people, and by the same token, whether they result in less unhappiness. Another premise is your definition of who counts as a person. In previous essays you have put forward the idea that murder is wrong mainly because it makes people afraid of being murdered, which is, among other things, a type of unhappiness. You draw upon this notion to examine the case of newborn babies who for various reasons (handicaps, disabilities, the unfitness or unwillingness of the mother) are not desired by their parents and are a potential burden on society. Because newborn babies give no evidence of fearing or even understanding death, you conclude that they cannot be subject to such fear. They are therefore exempt from the main reason you have previously put forward to justify society’s no-murder rule. You conclude that the government (or society) should defer to the persons most concerned—namely, the parents—in the case of unwanted newborns, and if the parents decide to kill the child (either actively by execution or passively by withholding treatment, medication, or food), your ethical reasoning tells you that such an act is not wrong, as difficult as it might be for all concerned.

Steve, if I agreed with your premises, I would have to agree with your conclusion because it follows logically from your premises. But your premises are mistaken. Here is how.

Your major misstep is to exclude newborn babies from the category of those with a right to life for the reason that they cannot (apparently) conceive of or fear death. This is in contrast to the approach favored by many right-to-life groups and individuals (including myself), which is to confer the right to life upon any biological entity that can be shown to be a human being at any stage of development or consequent stage of life. The latter criterion includes everyone from a just-fertilized human ovum all the way to a 100-year-old man in a persistent vegetative state.

There are important differences between these two criteria.

Your criterion is based on a behavior, or rather, the lack of a specific insight on the part of the baby which we deduce from the baby’s behavior: namely, the knowledge and fear of death. My criterion is based on physical evidence that can be easily and scientifically verified, e. g. by a DNA test to show whether the being in question is a member of the species Homo sapiens. This criterion essentially says, “If it is alive, and if it is human, then it qualifies as a person.” I think you will admit that applying my criterion is a fairly simple and straightforward matter that in most cases can be done by inspection.

But what about your criterion? Exactly when does a baby reach the age at which it can understand and fear death? Moreover, does this fear have to be active, or merely a potential fear? And how do you know whether it is present or not in any given individual? Must we develop an “awareness-of-death inventory” and administer it before legitimately taking a newborn child’s life? We are talking about an extremely serious matter here—the qualifications for membership in the rights-endowed human race—and it will not do to make unverified assumptions or generalizations. I hope you will not accuse me of undue levity if I say that I have known some teenagers who, at least by their behavior, showed no evidence whatever of the fear of death. Should they therefore be disqualified from membership in the category of humans, allowing us to kill them at will? Handicapped infants are not the only beings who can become a burden to their parents.

I find it ironic that you, who make no secret of your Jewish heritage, nevertheless contrast your position with that of the Nazi regime, which engaged in the killing of innocent human beings on a mass-production scale. I disagree when you say that adopting your idea to exclude newborns from the right to life will not lead to a slippery slope downward toward another Holocaust. Both you and the Nazi regime have already taken the first step: namely, the act of dehumanizing someone who most people would normally regard as a person.

If you study the memoirs of former concentration-camp guards, you will find that their need to view the prisoners as cattle, vermin, raw material for soap—anything other than a fellow human being—was critical to the guards’ ability to continue the heinous work in which they were engaged. Once they admitted to themselves that the naked, trembling body before them embodied a soul just like theirs, the game was over, and there was nothing left to them but suicide, desertion, or insanity.

Once you make membership in the human race dependent on any manifested ability and not on objective physical facts, you have crossed a critical line, and the rest is merely details. Whether you specify the ability to fear death, or to say “Heil Hitler” or “Hail, Caesar,” or integrate sin(x) dx, or anything else, you have fundamentally changed the category of qualification from that of physical nature to that of performance or behavior. To qualify as human, one must not simply be human, one must do something that is regarded as characteristic of humans. Exactly what activity is used as a criterion is secondary.

Even if you and I were to agree that a performance-based qualification for human rights should be adopted, the one you choose is problematic in the extreme. You cannot prove that babies do not fear death in the same way that I can prove by a DNA test that a baby is human. The idea that babies do not fear death is a speculative conclusion based on the lack of evidence to the contrary. And as most scientists would agree, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. While newborn babies cannot talk and therefore cannot communicate the essence of their experiences to us, no one except newborns has any idea of what it is like to be a newborn, any more than I have an idea of exactly what it is like to be a wombat or a gerbil. Who knows but what any unpleasant experience, from hunger to the sight of an unfamiliar face, is more terrifying to an infant than facing a firing squad is for an adult? Certainly some babies scream as though it is.

Your failure to follow out some of the implications of your logic leads you to make some unguarded statements that, on examination, turn out to be little more than hopeful wishes rather than reasonable bases upon which to erect a system of ethics. For example, in discussing your principle that murder is to be avoided because it causes the fear of death in others, you write, “Nobody should have valid cause to worry that they might at some time in the immediate, or even remote, future be deprived of their lives.” You probably had in mind an unwritten supporting clause, namely, “deprived, that is, by the intentional actions of others.” But Steve, every one of us has valid cause to worry that we might at some time in the future be deprived of our lives. So far, the death rate among humans is 100%. The art of living consists largely in resisting the despair that continued contemplation of our deaths will induce. And there are two main ways to fight this despair.

One way is to philosophize. And philosophizing is anything but an exact science. One reason that different philosophers reach such a variety of conclusions about any given moral issue is that they begin with different assumptions. And while many given philosophical systems can be made internally consistent, each must begin from assumptions that can only be granted or denied, not argued about logically unless the participants share a deeper basis of assumptions on which their argument is based.

There are many moral philosophies that deny it is permissible to kill newborns. The fact that your particular line of reasoning concludes the opposite simply expresses the fact that you have chosen a different set of assumptions than other moral philosophers have. But having chosen those assumptions, you can go on about the business of life knowing that you have at least made an effort to be logically consistent. And until death puts an end to all philosophizing, your philosophy can provide you with a guide to moral action.

The other way humanity has found to combat the despair of the contemplation of death is through religion. You mention religion, or rather “religions” toward the end of your essay, but after admitting that most world religions do not condone “neonaticide,” you say that because we in the U. S. live in a pluralistic society, religious scruples about killing newborns should not be imposed on those who do not subscribe to them. So your ultimate response to religious arguments against killing newborns is to claim political immunity from such proscriptions.

How did it come about that you live in a society which respects your right to dissent from the beliefs of a religious majority? The founders of the United States wisely saw that a coerced religion is really no religion at all. They valued religion too much to make it compulsory. They left citizens responsible only to God, or their own consciences, with regard to religious belief, and prohibited the governmental establishment of religion, as well as any law preventing the free exercise thereof. Why they did so is a matter of some historical complexity, but an important contributing factor was the then relatively new idea in Protestant Christianity that faith in God was a matter for individual inquiry and decision, rather than a government-imposed requirement.

By contrast, history shows that governments based on an explicitly atheistic philosophy have no compunction about defining humanity in almost arbitrary ways, and in terminating those whose right to life has been revoked by their failure to meet certain requirements for behavior, or descent, or income level, or almost anything else you care to name. In adopting a policy such as the one you urge, the U. S. government would be endorsing the idea that personhood depends on an aspect of intellectual capacity, not on the simple fact of being human. Of course, the Roe v. Wade decision arbitrarily deprived millions of unborn children of the right to life, but the fact that opposition to that decision and its consequences is as strong now as it was thirty years ago shows that many U. S. citizens disagree with the arbitrary removal of the right to life simply because the life in question is inconvenient or painful for others.

Steve, I value my memories of the many times that you spoke your mind regardless of the consequences, and made a positive difference in the way engineering ethics is discussed, debated, and practiced. It saddens me to see you apply your great abilities to a moral problem and come out on the wrong side. While I do not have much hope that my words will persuade you to change your position, I would like to think that my respectful opposition to it is in the same honorable tradition that you yourself have established.

Yours sincerely,

Karl Stephan

Sources: Stephen H. Unger, Professor Emeritus of computer science and electrical engineering at Columbia University and author of Controlling Technology (1982), one of the earliest engineering ethics textbooks, posts his “Ends and Means” essays at, where his latest essay “Unwanted Babies: A Painful Problem” can be found.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wendell Berry and the Two Economies

Modern engineering as it is currently practiced is deeply embedded in the context of the global economy of modern industrial societies. Large corporations are the only organizations complex enough to coordinate the production of things as intricate as computers or airliners. So when someone such as writer and philosopher Wendell Berry criticizes the economic basis on which current engineering depends, his words are worth considering for their indirect implication that engineering, too, in some respects, is a house built on sand.

In an essay entitled “Two Economies,” Berry first recognizes the thing we usually mean when we say “economy”: a global system of exchange based on what is called fiat money—money that is a creature of governments which, as the U. S. Federal Reserve recently announced plans to do, can create as much as $600 billion out of thin air over a period of a few months. And that is one of Berry’s complaints about that economy: the fact that it is not based on anything beyond the say-so of certain powerful people and interests who attempt to control it to their advantage.

But beyond the thing that is usually meant by “the economy” lies an all-encompassing principle or entity that Berry chooses to call the Great Economy. It is, he says, “. . . the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience” and is “both known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious.” The idea of the Great Economy makes no sense outside of religious considerations, but that need not detain us, since every great classical religion says something meaningful about the Great Economy, though not in those terms.

In contrast to the human-created economy which is to some extent manageable, the Great Economy cannot be managed. It can only be conformed to by individuals and groups who acknowledge their inability to be fundamentally in control of their existence. Only when we admit that can we go about the business of constructing a human economy that works according to the terms of the Great Economy.

How would the world’s economy change if it conformed more to the Great Economy? I can mention only a couple of Berry’s ideas in the limited space available here. One is to cease viewing the various goods of the Great Economy as resources to be exploited. Berry says of the modern industrial economy that the “invariable mode of its relation both to nature and to human culture is that of mining: withdrawal from a limited fund until that fund is exhausted.” According to Berry, the industrial economy acknowledges no limits and recognizes no ultimate goals: it “cannot prescribe the terms of its own success.”

Berry sees much that is fundamentally wrong with things that most of us take for granted and rarely think about. He is not surprised that proponents of free enterprise end up so often on the dockets of criminal courts, and that much of modern medicine has become an “exploitive industry, profitable in direct proportion to its hurry and its mechanical indifference.” The reason is that as long as one never looks beyond the limits of a human-created economy, one ignores the Great Economy at his peril. But such ignorance comes at a price, and billions of people around the world pay that price every day.

Berry is probably the leading living proponent of the philosophical and economic movement called agrarianism. More than just a simplistic back-to-the-farm philosophy, agrarianism sees humanity in a holistic way that views work, leisure, money, community, and government as integrated parts of the Great Economy. One of the first arguments most engineers might think of when confronting the ideas of agrarianism is that if everybody tried to live out its principles, our present way of life would be destroyed. Not everybody can live as a subsistence farmer, or even has the interest, ability, or resources for such a life.

But that argument is itself taken from the industrial-economy playbook, which instantly takes any proposal and tries to homogenize it, duplicate it, and apply it worldwide. Those very actions are counter to agrarian principles, which are primarily local, personal, and can take form only in the context of small communities where people know each other. And in fact, as Berry points out, there are thousands of Amish farmers and other members of certain religious communities (including monasteries) where a good bit of the agrarian ideal works in practice.

So what should an engineer take away from Berry’s picture of the Great Economy that surrounds our human economies like a family home encompasses children in a back-yard treehouse? Well, short of dropping out and joining an Amish community, religion and all, I think engineers could benefit in several ways from thinking about Berry’s ideas. No plans turn out quite the way we expect, for one thing. That sounds like a restatement of Murphy’s Law (“if anything can go wrong, it will”), but in fact it is an admission that the imponderable and unpredictable, especially if human beings are involved, can easily overwhelm the calculable and certain. And thinking about the people who ultimately use the things engineers work on, and the cultural and spiritual contexts of their lives, is something we could all do more of, to the benefit of both society and our own organizations.

Many of the dire predictions Berry has made over the years have either come to pass to some degree, or are so much a chronic condition of our times that we have ceased to notice them. But we can sometimes learn more from our critics than from our friends, and I would urge anyone who has never read anything by Wendell Berry to do so soon.

Sources: Berry’s essay “Two Economies” appears in a collected edition of his essays entitled The Art of the Commonplace (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002), pp. 219-235.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Engineering Ethics and Natural Law

As anybody who has read this blog for a while knows, I do not view engineering ethics as a narrow, specialized field where only experts can render the right opinions. I believe anyone who has enough moral sense to graduate with an engineering degree has the ability to think ethically, and with a little help and advice can make good ethical judgments about a wide variety of professional concerns. Today I will explain why I think this is true.

If a person can think clearly enough to do engineering, he or she has what I will term a “deep knowledge” of right and wrong. This knowledge is not the same as what we conventionally call “conscience”: it is more like the fundamental principles on which everyone’s conscience is based. Some examples of this deep knowledge are things like:

Being fair is better than being unfair.

Betraying a friend is wrong.

Marital infidelity is wrong.

Evidence for this deep knowledge is to be found on every children’s playground and in the legends, literature, and law of every culture. It is simply an empirical fact that normal human beings have an inborn knowledge of right and wrong at a deep level.

This is not to say that everyone in every culture agrees on every detail of every ethical question. This deep knowledge combines with cultural norms, life experiences, training, and other factors to produce a conscience of which we are consciously aware. Some people manage to suppress their deep knowledge so that even their conscience does not bother them as they go about committing serial murders or turn themselves into suicide bombers. But rest assured the knowledge is there; it has simply been suppressed by other influences. The idea that this deep knowledge of right and wrong exists at some level in every human being is called “natural law.”

A person who has mastered the technical material of an engineering discipline has the intellectual capacity to understand and imagine the ethical consequences of engineering activity. Whether or not they apply their minds to this question is a matter of training and discipline. Up to the twentieth century, most people (including a good many who benefited from college educations) belonged to a religious tradition which encouraged acceptance of the principles of natural law, and legal codes were largely in conformance both with religious tradition and natural law as well. But with the advent of various totalitarian governments and a broad rejection of religion as a serious matter in higher education and elite classes, things changed.

Today you will find little support for the idea that everyone has a deep built-in knowledge of right and wrong which simply needs to be elucidated to become effective. Colleges and universities either avoid the subject altogether or teach ethics in a way that would never work for mathematics or physics. Imagine in your first physics class if the instructor got up and said something like, “There are many physics traditions: some people believe F = ma, while others believe F = m + a and still others believe F = m/a. We will not insist on any one of these, and simply want to tolerate everyone’s opinions on the subject while thinking how to apply these principles to practical situations.” It sounds absurd, and yet many instructors of professional ethics take what amounts to that position with regard to ethical principles. And if you go to experts who base their ethics on elaborately wrought philosophical structures, you can find someone who will justify anything from drug testing using people hired off the streets, to infanticide (the famous Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has said that killing newborns is not the same thing as killing a person).

As natural-law philosopher J. Budziszewski has said, our deep knowledge of right and wrong is still there, but factors such as the atrophy of tradition, the cult of the expert, and the disabling of shock and shame have made it harder for us to connect with that deep knowledge and act on it. Thus it can be that trying to do ethics in accordance with certain complex philosophical approaches can take you to a conclusion that makes logical sense, given your philosophical assumptions, and yet feels wrong. I am here to say that in such a case, you probably ought to go with your feelings.

But not always: “going with your feelings” is one more factor that has landed us in more trouble with regard to natural law. A moment’s thought will reveal how wrong it is to say that one’s feelings must always be followed as a guide to action. Yet for people who have no belief in the deep knowledge of right and wrong, and base their moral decisions on examples from popular culture where following your feelings is a bedrock principle, there may be nothing better to turn to. Feelings are real, and paying attention to your feelings is important, but unless you are some kind of saint, obeying your feelings is not going to lead to the right decision all the time (and even the saints admitted to having wrong feelings from time to time).

But not always: “going with your feelings” is one more factor that has landed us in more trouble with regard to natural law. A moment’s thought will reveal how wrong it is to say that one’s feelings must always be followed as a guide to action. Yet for people who have no belief in the deep knowledge of right and wrong, and base their moral decisions on examples from popular culture where following your feelings is a bedrock principle, there may be nothing better to turn to. Feelings are real, and paying attention to your feelings is important, but unless you are some kind of saint, obeying your feelings is not going to lead to the right decision all the time (and even the saints admitted to having wrong feelings from time to time).

If I had room, I could explore the reasons for believing in this deep knowledge, which ultimately lead back to the idea of a Creator who designed them into us in conformance with the way the world is. But the nice thing about natural law is that even if a person doesn’t believe in God, the deep knowledge is there, and if you can help bring it to the surface, their conscience will guide them to the right decision regardless.

This is why I believe engineering ethics is not just a field for experts. Everyone can do it, but it requires thought as well as feelings, will as well as intelligence, and reliance on something that is ultimately not of our own making.

Sources: I relied on J. Budziszewski’s book What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2003) for the basic ideas in this blog. It is highly recommended as a readable yet sophisticated and thorough treatment of applied natural law. I last mentioned natural law in my blog of Nov. 23, 2009 (“Ethics: Evolved or Given?”).

Monday, November 01, 2010

One Spammer Down, Thousands to Go

The people who invented what we now know as the Internet almost certainly did not intend for it to be used mostly for sending unwanted messages that cost the recipient a lot more than the sender, seldom get read, and serve almost no redeeming social purpose. But according to the Wikipedia article on e-mail spam, 78% of all e-mail messages sent over the Internet are the mass-produced, often illegal type of advertising known as spam. Last month, this incredible flood of junk slowed down by about a fifth after Russian authorities took actions against Igor A. Gusev, the head of Gusev, who fled the country after his house was raided Sept. 27, ran as a kind of spam wholesaler, paying “retail” spammers to send junk e-mails. Once his website closed, many senders of spam saw no point in carrying on and shut down, at least temporarily. Experts cite this as the main cause of about a 20% decrease in the volume of spam worldwide. However, they expect that other entrepreneurs in this sordid activity will soon show up to take up the slack left by Gusev’s departure.

The Internet has taken its place alongside power grids, water-supply systems, and snail mail as one of the modern-day utilities we all rely on. But I was amazed to learn that nearly four-fifths of all e-mails sent are spam. If I consider what fraction of snail mail delivered to my door is in the same category, however, it’s not so surprising.

Every form of unsolicited advertising entails some effort, however minor, on the part of the intended recipient. Even ignoring billboards on the freeway takes a bit of mental effort, although it’s so miniscule as to be negligible. Throwing away physical pieces of paper that come in the postal mail is a more substantial time-and-effort sink, although one’s expenditure is limited to the reading needed to save the desirable or necessary things such as bills and toss the rest. But the main cost of snail-mail advertising is borne by the sender.

Not so for spam. As the Wikipedia article on e-mail spam points out, spam is equivalent to postage-due advertising, since the per-message cost to the spammer is an insignificant fraction of what it costs the recipient to deal with spam, either through blocking filters or the old-fashioned way of selecting and deleting it. Either way, the estimated cost to the recipient per spam message is about ten cents, which multiplied by the many billions of spams per year means that U. S. businesses alone spend on the order of $20 billion a year that they would not have to spend if spam weren’t such a problem. And this doesn’t even begin to address the other issues connected with spam, such as the illegal “botnets” set up by spammers to send most of the stuff, the phishing attacks that many spam messages contain, and the viruses and other malware that spam can infest your computer with.

So why has this pernicious situation been allowed to develop? One big problem is the prevailing U. S. law governing spam, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. This law sets certain standards for spam in order for it to be legal, such as truth in the subject line and no forged addresses. As long as spam meets these fairly low standards, it is not illegal, at least according to Federal law, which pre-empted most state laws about spam. CAN-SPAM is a lot more lenient than many European laws against spam, and since the U. S. is the place where much spam originates (or at least is sent from by botnets, which are themselves illegal), our relatively lax laws exacerbate the problem for the rest of the world. Since spammers easily can live in one country, conduct their business transactions in a second country, and do their technical operations in several other places around the world, combating the problem in an organized way requires international cooperation. And unless things get really serious, such as the prospect of some kind of organized attack on a nation’s Internet infrastructure, ordinary spam is not something that attracts the attention of the limited resources of international law enforcement organizations.

All the same, it is too bad that the present Internet structure makes it so easy for spammers to get away with their nefarious activities. Engineers like efficiency, and to see nearly 4/5 of a resource go to something that is usually illegal, almost never succeeds in the sense of generating responses, and does nothing but annoy most recipients and cost them money to get rid of, is just a shame. It may be too late to do much about it, such as redesigning the Internet to make unsolicited emails harder to send. There are occasional discussions about redoing the fundamental technical structure of the Internet, right down to the protocols, but this would be like switching the world’s electric utilities from AC to DC, a huge production that would not be easy to carry out. Short of that, I suppose we will all just have to regard spam as one of those necessary evils like noise in communications channels. Noise is due to fundamental physical laws, while spam derives ultimately from choices people make. The fact that some people will make wrong or evil choices seems to be as reliable as the law of gravity, though. It was G. K. Chesterton who said thatz the Christian doctrine of original sin—the idea that everyone is born with the ability to sin—is the only one for which there is abundant empirical evidence. And spam seems to bear that out.

Sources: The actions taken against Gusev and its consequences are described in an Oct. 28, 2010 article at