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Spam vs. Development

Those of us in the West who have been online for awhile can often have something of a blasé attitude towards spam. I don't mean that it's ignored, of course. Every day I get a couple hundred spam emails, and every day the admins at WorldChanging have to remove more spam comments and trackbacks, and add new terms to the site's blocking list. But with a sufficiently fast connection and sufficiently intelligent filtering software, the spam problem is more-or-less manageable.

It's a very different situation for many people in the developing world, however. The level of spam on the networks is as great (or even greater) than in the West, but a very large portion of those getting online do so with slow modems or in crowded Internet cafés that charge by the byte. A level of spam that might be considered annoying to someone in Los Angeles could be an insurmountable obstacle to someone in Lagos. This has important development implications: as more regional economic activity moves online, problems like spam, viruses and denial-of-service attacks can drive people out of business.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has just published a report on the subject of spam in the developing world (PDF), and it makes for sobering reading. A couple of big problems -- and some useful solutions -- stand out:

  • First and foremost, costs. Bandwidth in much of the developing world is limited and expensive, and gigabytes of spam flowing through can drive smaller ISPs out of business. Similarly, users who pay by the byte or minute for access are hurt both financially and in terms of system usability.

  • Spam carrying viruses can be more damaging in the developing world than in the West, as a larger portion of Windows boxes are running unlicensed and unsupported versions; patches are usually unavailable from Microsoft for unlicensed copies (if the multi-megabyte files can be downloaded over modems to begin with), and anti-virus software is considered to be too expensive.

But it's not just incoming spam that's a problem.

  • The lack of laws, education and accountability relating to the Internet make numerous developing nations attractive havens for spammers operating around the world. As a result, ISPs that host spammers (knowingly or unknowingly) find their IP addresses blocked by spam-prevention services, but because of IP allocation practices, the result is that large numbers of customers end up having legitimate email blocked. When ISPs ignore complaints about spam (or, worse still, make unsubstantiated accusations regarding the motives of spam-blockers), the situation is compounded.

The OECD report doesn't just discuss problems, fortunately, and the solutions it suggests will come as little surprise to WorldChanging readers. Right off the top, they suggest a big shift to what they term Free/Libre Open Source Software, or FLOSS (usually referred to as Free/Open Source Software or simply Open Source here), in terms of both operating systems and application software for people choosing to remain on Windows. This would have both immediate and longer-term benefits: FLOSS is far less vulnerable to viruses than unpatched Windows software; spam filters built into FLOSS email programs are considered very powerful; and (most importantly) it leads to the growth of local talent able to fix, improve, customize and develop the software without concerns of IP theft -- free/open source software is itself a tool for development.

The report also looks at institutional responses. They suggest the formation of Computer Emergency Response Teams at the national level (and cooperating globally) to assist with large-scale virus or denial-of-service attacks; correspondingly, they also strongly suggest adoption of locally-appropriate laws relating to spamming and other online misbehavior. But even more worldchanging are the calls for developed world support for collaborative NGOs specializing in the training of developing world Internet administrators. In particular, they highlight the efforts of the Network Startup Resource Center and the Packet Clearing House.

The NSRC helps source donations of software, hardware, Internet connectivity etc. to help ISPs andorganizations in developing economies get started on deploying secure and efficient Internet access at the lowest possible cost. [...]

PCH helps developing economies optimize their scarce Internet connectivity by helping them build “peering points”, where local ISPs can interconnect their networks, ensuring that traffic between local ISPs remains local, routed via the shortest possible path between two ISPs rather than taking a roundabout route through international connectivity links. Local traffic getting routed through international links is all too common when ISPs in a country don't peer with each other, and leads to Internet access within a country becoming slow, and drives up bandwidth costs.

As mentioned in the section on improving international co-operation among ISPs in developing and developed economies, PCH also maintains the INOC-DBA closed VOIP telephone network, which allows participating ISP administrators to pick up an INOC-DBA phone and talk with their counterparts at other ISPs around the world.

The conclusions of the report read like something out of a WorldChanging post:

Developing economies are rich in human resources – talented personnel who are aware of the issues involved, and who will benefit enormously from training and interaction with their peers in tackling spam problems. Deployment of local personnel and low-cost, open source software solutions involves comparatively low amounts of monetary investment. Moreover, such soft investments injected into a developing country's Internet economy are directed towards long-term capacity building and development of a trained pool of local expertise, both of which contribute to improving the operational stability of the Internet in that country.

Reducing the impact of spam on the developing world will take a combination of social and technological changes. But the same could be said for many of the problems faced by the region, from improving water supplies to reducing greenhouse gases. This is encouraging, really, because it means that spam and other online problems that threaten the emerging information economy of the developing world are arguably only another example of an understood type of problem: overwhelming need, too few resources, and outdated systems ripe for leapfrogging.

(Found via Development Gateway -- thanks, John Daly!)

Comments (4)

I wrote that oecd paper, and a friend pointed me to your blog post about it. Thanks for the compliments


Thank you for letting us know, Suresh (and thank you for writing the report!). I looked for an author name on the document, but didn't see one (admittedly, I didn't scour the whole thing, just checked the "obvious" locations).

Obvious location would be the second page on that report, which says "This report was prepared by Mr.Suresh Ramasubramanian, consultant to the OECD" etc etc :)


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