Sunday, 27 May 2007

Spammers And Gated Communities On The Web

YAR - Yet Another Rant ...

From my experiences living in various locations around the world, I have always loved the locations where there are very few gated communities. You can enter the different areas very freely - there are few security checkpoints, very few guards and movement is very unrestricted. These are usually the very safe areas and there's a lot of interaction between people in the different areas. These are usually friendlier, livelier and richer communities, especially with inter-community mingling.

On the other hand, the areas with lots of tightly gated communities bother me. This usually implies that the area is not very safe and you need a variety of fences and security personnel to keep out undesirable and potentially dangerous elements. These communities live in fear and are very closed. While it is peaceful inside these communities, it is still a prison of sorts.

Lately, I have begun feeling that the web is turning more and more into a group of gated communities. Mind you, it's not just linked-chain fences and rent-a-cops. It feels like many areas are starting to turn into fortresses - high walls, constant patrolling of the boundaries by guards with very deadly weapons and constant challenges while you wander through. The problem - spammers.

It used to be that spammers only sent email to your mailbox. Today, they find anything and everything they can get to make you click on their links. Within days of IOSN turning on trackbacks, many of the blog posts were filled with spam trackbacks that were just trying to sell their latest crap. Comment spam became common a couple of years ago, which is why most sites don't allow anonymous comments.

A few months ago, Exoweb set up a test server for the Beijing Linux User's Group. This was a default content management software setup (I believe it was plone) so anyone could register anonymously. It was not publicized and only a small handful of people should have known about it. Next thing we knew, some virus-writer had (obviously automatically) created a ton of accounts and hosted a huge number of trojan binaries or spam pages on the site and spammed people to click onto it. We weren't the only ones hit, but it was quite frustrating when we found out and had to shut down all logins. Till today, you can probably find some remnants of it if you google for Exoweb. I don't even want to get started on how frequently our client sites are probed by bots daily.

These low-lives who send their bots out looking for unsecured sites are the equivalent of thugs roaming your streets, trying every single door they come across. How safe would you feel if you saw criminals brazenly looking for unlocked doors in broad daylight in your neighbourhood? Because of this, people are trying to reduce access to their communities/sites, making sure only verified people are allowed to participate.

One side effect of this is that it gets more and more inconvenient to join communities or participate. Most sites will not allow participation without registration. Registration involves more hoops to jump through (captchas, email confirmations, etc). Gone are the days when you could just swing by a friend's blog and just drop a comment anonymously. Participation is now deliberate - you must really want to say something and have the patience to jump through hoops to make it. Gone are the days when you could just fire off an off-the-cuff post or comment.

This keeps people in small little gated communities. Once they have created accounts in a particular site, they are less likely to bother to register in other sites. Communities get more insular with less intermingling. Diversity, cross-pollination and knowledge is reduced ...

All this, because some people have found it perfectly acceptable to violate all netiquette for personal gain and everyone else lacks the will to do something about it. Is is sad. How quickly the promise of the internet - incredibly convenient and cheap communication and access to information - is sullied and tainted by greedy human nature.

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