EFF White Paper Reports on Collateral Damage to Free Expression in the Fight Against Spam

San Francisco - Today the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a white paper (HTML - PDF) describing the effects of anti-spam technologies on free speech. "Noncommercial Email Lists: Collateral Damage in the Fight Against Spam" focuses on how groups running noncommercial email lists are being harmed by anti-spam techniques. The paper grew out of EFF's efforts to help MoveOn.org, human rights groups, parents' groups, and others, deliver email messages in the face of barriers that are aimed at stopping spam but that also stop wanted messages.

"When tools designed to prevent unwanted email also prevent wanted email from being delivered, or when anti-spam tools favor well-funded speakers over others, something fundamental to the health of Internet communication has been broken," write the authors of the paper, EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn and EFF Policy Analyst Annalee Newitz, in the introduction. The paper goes on to explain how anti-spam technologies, such as blocklists, server-side filtering, bonded sender programs, and email authentication schemes like Sender-ID and DomainKeys, are often misused.

But there are solutions to the problem. In a section on best practices, EFF suggests ways that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other organizations handling email delivery can stop spam while preserving free speech. Recommendations include putting spam filtering preferences under the control of end users and making anti-spam mechanisms like blocklists more transparent. Also included are guidelines for email list managers that will reduce the likelihood that their mail will get incorrectly labeled as spam.

"Anti-spam technologies protect us against unwanted messages, but we need to do more to ensure that they don't also prevent us from receiving wanted speech," said Newitz. "Overbroad anti-spam measures have a significant impact on noncommercial mailing lists used by parents, political organizers, artists, and others. When anti-spam measures prevent people from participating in such communities, we need to rethink how we use them."

"Noncommercial mailing lists are one of the truly important free speech tools on the Internet, yet increasingly they face unfair, unseen, and unaccountable barriers due to overbroad and reckless anti-spam efforts," added Cohn. "If the government treated free speech this poorly, the First Amendment would be in serious trouble. We should demand better from those in the anti-spam community."

EFF has worked with several groups running noncommercial email lists that have signed on to the paper as a way of showing their support for its findings and recommendations. Now that the paper has been released to the public, EFF is calling on more email list owners and ISPs to sign on and change their practices to ensure that while they take steps to protect against spam, they also protect free speech.


Cindy Cohn
Legal Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Annalee Newitz
Media Coordinator/Policy Analyst
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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