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One of the hardest questions we get asked almost every day is what people can do about their own daily spam load, especially pornographic spam and most especially pornography being sent to children's e-mail addresses.
The sad truth, we've had to admit time and again, is that nothing much can be done. Blocking spam, even with the tools we've found and referenced on our various user and admin resource pages, is basically a hit-or-miss proposition. In our copious free time, we run a private anti-spam mailing list, and we are both amused and saddened by the amount of e-mail traffic on this list that is bounced at the recipients' sites by various filters and blocks. And these are people who are at the heart of the anti-spam movement, who have great technical expertise and the latest information. Blocking just doesn't work very well. Unfortunately, it's like the old saw about governments: it's not very good, but everything else is worse.
Pornographic spam would seem to be more of an open-and-shut case - after all, typical porno spams use a lot of "dirty" words that should be easy to block on, right? Unfortunately, even that's not true. Someone we know works for a major government agency in Australia that has implemented "dirty word" blocks, and all kinds of stuff is getting bounced back at me. Keyword filters are very poor at determining when a word is dirty or not. After all, there are at least three clean uses for the word 'cock' (a rooster, as in "the cock crowed at sunrise", to tilt, as in "cocked his head to hear better" and when you cock a pistol). How is some poor dumb program supposed to know I'm talking about a rooster?
How about the last case we mentioned - pornography to children? We frequently get asked if it's illegal, and truthfully, we think it probably already is in many jurisdictions. The problem isn't so much that it's legal as it is in finding any government agency to care about it. The FBI and sometimes the US Postal Inspector prosecute child pornography cases in the US, and Interpol coordinates these prosecutions on an international basis. If you get an offer for kiddy porn via e-mail, go to the FBI's web site, look up their US Mail address and send them the offer via regular postal mail with a cover letter explaining that you received the offer unsolicited via e-mail and you'd like them to investigate.
However, this still doesn't help with the porn-to-kids case. Honestly, we just don't have a satisfying answer to this part of the problem. Blocking and filtering will just get you so far. The only other advice we have is to follow the guidelines for monitoring your child's use of the Internet: the computer should be in a public area of the home, and you need to pay attention to where your kids are going, because you never know where an e-mail address will get picked up.
Over time, we hope to add references to resources parents can use to help them protect their children from pornographic spam. This month, we are adding a link to the Texas ISP Association's filtering page. If you know of other references to tools that would be helpful to parents, write to us.
Scott Hazen Mueller / E-mail me