Don’t Be So Quick to Dismiss (the Significance of) SPAM

What do emails from (alleged) Nigerian princes and questionable pharmaceutical companies have to do with the future of Internet freedom as we know and enjoy it? 

In his Wall Street Journal review of Finn Brunton’s “Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet,” titled The Common Enemy, Mr. Evgeny Morozov observed that “The consequences of those early deliberations [about spam] still influence what we can and can’t do online.”

This is an excellent point – that early deliberations continue to impact how we use the Internet – but it’s critical that Americans know that significant deliberations relating to spam are still taking place. 

The most significant and recent deliberation took place this past December at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai. During these deliberations over a new telecommunications treaty, representatives of China, Russia and the UAE proposed language – later withdrawn – that would give governments more control over the content of online communications under the seemingly reasonable guise of needing to control spam.  

It’s worth paying attention to how we, as members of the Internet community, respond to attempts to regulate annoyances, like spam. Because while efforts to regulate spam could simply be a cover for more devious attempts to undermine Internet freedom, fighting spam has had the positive side effect of making the Internet community stronger. From the WSJ book review:

“By tracing the evolution of the many meanings of spam, Mr. Brunton upsets the traditional Whiggish narrative of digital culture, which suggests that users simply find one another and build new communities as they please. Rather, he suggests, they were in some ways fortunate to be forced to come together to fight a common enemy.”

This week, the ITU meets again in Geneva, Switzerland to continue discussing Internet governance. As policymakers and representatives prepare for the International Telecommunications Plenipotentiary in 2014 – where treaty-level discussion and strategic planning will occur – Americans and all Internet users should be wary of attempts to regulate a common enemy like spam at the expense of rights like freedom of expression. 

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