"Smart mobs" censoring e-mails

On Sep 22, 2007, at 12:57 AM, Marc Baber wrote:

There are a number of subtle forces at work these days, whittling away at our online freedom and network neutrality

This past week, Microsoft’s free web-email services (including Hotmail, MSN, WebTV and others) have started, in the words of some of their system administrators, “blocking” or “throttling” e-mails from (abbrev: TO), one of the top-ten progressive news sources on the web. America Online (AOL) was also participating in this e-mail censorship policy, but has apparently stopped after getting many hundreds (thousands?) of complaints from TO readers.

A few TO readers who subscribe to both liberal and conservative e-mail lists have noticed that the conservative e-mails are not blocked, but the liberal ones are. Details can be found on TO’s website at

According to the system administrators, this “throttling” is being done because of’s “reputation”. Often out in the wild, wild, web, “reputation” is based on anonymous tip-clicks. Companies don’t pay a huge staff to catalog and filter spam e-mail. Instead they primarily rely on reports from their users, relying on a popular internet concept called “smart mobs”, wherein it’s assumed that information provided by a large number of people is often accurate. The problem is that sometimes mobs are ugly. There are two kinds of people in the mobs– people who like to practice censorship (winning arguments by silencing opponents) and people who don’t. In practice, the former group is far more likely to coincide with a conservative point of view and the latter with a liberal point of view– so, guess who ends up getting censored.

Last summer, I found examples of over 100,000 Google videos being effectively censored because of “smart mobs” and Google’s “SafeSearch” filter. I reported my findings to Google and they quietly rehabilitated the videos. (See for details). Although Google’s users are supposed to only flag sexual content as “inappropriate”, in practice, they were flagging certain city council meeting videos, public broadcasting shows, Dennis Kucinich, Judaism and the “Dixie Chicks” among many other controversial topics that had nothing to do with pornography.

I suspect a similar thing is happening in the e-mail arena because these anonymous reporting systems are ripe for abuse and there are people out there who find that appealing. If I wanted to abuse spam filtering to achieve effective censorship, here’s how I’d do it:

1. Go out on the web and sign up for every e-mailing list I could find for groups I wanted to censor.

2. When I received e-mails from these lists, I’d just mark them as spam in my webmail account.

3. Tell my friends to do the same.

The software of the major e-mail service providers does the rest. When enough “votes” accumulate to sufficiently impact the e-mail lists’ reputations, the e-mail service providers stop delivering the e-mails to peoples’ regular in-boxes and start putting them in the “spam” or “trash” folders. Then the messages are ignored except in the rare instances when people go sifting through their spam folders checking to make sure the spam filters are functioning properly.

Unfortunately, the idea that smart mobs are to blame for the most part may be giving the e-mail service providers too much benefit of the doubt, because things have gotten worse.

Ordinarily, when you mark a piece of e-mail as “not spam”, subsequent messages from the same sender are put into your regular delivery e-mail folder, however many TO readers report that even when they go into their bulk/spam folders and mark the e-mail from TO as “not spam”, new TO e-mails are still put into their spam folders. The fact that people cannot override the spam designation for certain progressive mailing lists, tends to indicate that it is the service providers’ (undeclared) policy to filter that list no matter what the recipients’ preferences are. This does not bode well for free speech on the internet.

It’s important that e-mail users exercise free speech regularly because if you don’t use it you will lose it. When we discover that an e-mail service provider like Hotmail is participating in censorship of e-mail messages, we need to complain loudly and immediately take our business elsewhere. Boycott them. Even if you’re not paying for your e-mail, your e-mail service provider gets paid by their advertisers for a small slice of your attention, so instead of voting with your wallet, you have to vote with your eyeballs– take your attention elsewhere.

Ironically, many of the people who most need to see this e-mail might not receive it. We don’t know by what algorithms e-mail service providers determine if an e-mail is spaam. It’s quite likely that any e-mail containing the word “spaam” (except with one “a”) could be considered spaam. I don’t have the resources of TO to track if my e-mail messages are being delivered properly, so instead of just forwarding this e-mail to your friends, call them and tell them about e-mail censorship problems. Friends don’t let friends use Hotmail, MSN or WebTV, or…you get the idea.

Thanks for all you do. Keep up the good fight!


P.S. If this e-mail was forwarded to you and you’d like to receive my future e-mails of political commentary directly, please sign up at Thank you. If you no longer want to receive my e-mails, simply reply with “REMOVE” in the subject line.

0 replies on “"Smart mobs" censoring e-mails”

This problem is merely a symptom of TOS (TERMS OF SERVICE) that many isps impose.

the original internet concept was that every single node on the network has its own domain name, and every single computer would run its own servers… http: ftp: mail: etc.

The real fight is in assuring that every internet service provider allow every single user to be able to SEND and receive any data they wish, and allow them to run any kind of server unfettered.

the only reason that things like youtube and hotmail exist is because in recent years, users have not truly been allowed to be full citizens of the network, complete with every kind of server.

once they throttle our upload speeds and block certain ports, and declare that we are not allowed to run our own mail server, that’s when our freedom erodes.

we shouldn’t have to count on third parties to supply video to people, or to receive our email. there’s plenty of open source software available online to allow us to do everything from home.

tell your congressman that not only do you want net neutrality, but you want every node on the network to truly be part of an INTERnet, not merely a leach on some corporate cable company’s net.

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