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This article republished in full with permission from Carlton Vogt. Visit Enterprise Ethics to subscribe.


Carlton Vogt's E-mail: feedback@enterprise-ethics.com


Vol. 2 Number 40 December 3, 2004



Is it ethical to use unethical tactics against someone you consider unethical?



The idea of vigilantism --taking the law into your own hands when you

feel the authorities aren't doing enough -- has its appeal, but on

closer scrutiny it also has a dark side that we may want to avoid.


I have to admit, that I was just a little intrigued when I read last

week about Lycos Europe's plan to get even with known spammers by

distributing a screen saver that would launch a mini Denial of Service

(DOS) attack against sites known to be generating large amounts of



Dubbed "Make Love, Not Spam," the effort encouraged PC owners to

download a screen saver that would use computer downtime to send page

requests to the offending sites. The plan was cleverly designed -- or

so the originators thought -- not to shut the sites down entirely,

which would be illegal, but to cost them money through the bandwidth

that would be eaten up by the massive amount of page requests.


After years of living in what must have been some kind of bubble, where

I received virtually no spam, I now get a small amount -- a couple of

emails a day that make their way through all of the spam filters that

are in place both at my ISP and on my desktop. However, I do have to

admit that I spend more time dealing with errant spam filters that seem

to block my emails from going through than I do in reporting and

deleting the spam that makes is way into my inbox.


Still, dealing with spam at all is aggravating, and it seemed like some

kind of poetic justice to be able to make the spammers' operations a

little less profitable. I checked out the Lycos site and immediately

began developing misgivings about their approach.


Initially, the proposition is appealing. After all, who isn't intrigued

by the idea of turning the bad guy's own weapon against him? But, when

evaluating propositions like this, you need to strip them down to their

essential elements to see if they work.


First, let's assume that we all agree that Denial of Service attacks

are wrong. When it happens to our company's site or to our bank's site,

preventing us from accessing our accounts, we think it's bad. So, why

would it be ethical to use it against spammers?


Well, because they're spammers, people would say. They deserve this.

Maybe they do. But let's construct the proposition without the specific

reference to spammers, which introduces an emotional elements that

doesn't really help us out. Let's get to the essentials.


The proposition then becomes: It's ethical to use an otherwise

unethical technique against people we believe are acting unethically. I

was going to add "acting illegally," but if there are legal sanctions

that work there would be even less justification for vigilante-style



I would hope that the problems with my new, stripped-down proposition

are obvious. Who decides that someone is acting unethically? And how

does that decision have the force of suspending rules that we would

otherwise agree with?


Now, I'm assuming that Lycos, because it's heavily involved in the

business, has a good idea of who the "bad guys" are when it comes to

spam. Maybe they do. But for them to set themselves up as the arbiter

of what ethical rules we can skirt leads us into dangerous territory.


If you accept my stripped-down proposition, then what's to prevent

PETA, for example, from claiming some ethical dispensation to launch a

DOS attack against a meat manufacturer, claiming that its treatment of

animals and use of hormones in commercial meat is unethical? Why

shouldn't pacifists be able to use a similar attack against sites

belonging to military contractors? How about people who object, on

moral grounds, to gambling? Should they be allowed ethically to disrupt

online gaming sites?


So, while I carry no brief for spammers, I find the idea of using a DOS

attack to "punish" them ethically unsupportable, mostly because I think

it puts us on a slippery slope that can lead to chaos, if too many

groups start claiming some moral high ground to launch similar attacks

in their pet causes. We do need some way to combat spam, but I think

the vigilante approach isn't the right one.


One interesting note: It didn't take the spammers long to fight back.

The last I heard, the sites that had been targeted by Lycos simply

redirected the page requests back to the Lycos site --

http://makelovenotspam.com -- and apparently brought it to its knees.

At this writing, it's still out of operation.


There have been hundreds of suggestions for fighting spam. The one that

seems to have gained the most ground is charging a minuscule amount for

sending an email --something that wouldn't affect most people, but

would cost the spammers more than it's worth. I can see numerous

problems with that proposal, not the least of which is the massive

bureaucracy it would spawn. Maybe you have a better idea. Join our

online discussion -- http://www.enterprise-ethics.com -- or you can

email me at feedback@enterprise-ethics.com.



Copyright 2003-4 Marc Freedman. All Rights Reserved.

All opinions expressed herein are those of the author unless otherwise noted. This web site at www.diariaa.com is non-commercial satire. It is in no way endorsed, sponsored, or affiliated with RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America. All trademarks and copyrights mentioned on this site are retained by their respective owners.

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