Spammity, spam, wonderful spam…

WikiSpammer

I’ve been advised not to blog about spam lest I make myself a target, but I cannot sit idly and will not operate in fear of scum who feel they have some internet granted right to blast their gunk on the web sites I have devoted my time and passion to create. It is wrong, like cowering from some middle school thug. I refuse to do that.

I dare you spammers to step out of your dark shadows and take ownership of your actions. Are you not person enough to take ownership for your actions? I defy you to justify plastering links for bestiality, pornography, gambling on my open systems designed to help educators use the internet. Do you have the guts to do so, or will you remain forever cloaked in your timid, meek, fetid holes? I double dare you to admit it, to put your own name out here. I triple dare you to take ownership for your deeds.

Alan Levine

I was on the fence about whether or not to raise my cudgel to the topic of WikiSpam, but Alan’s incendiary call to arms has roused me to upheaval.

Last night — after a hectic spell at the office, feeding and bathing my son, putting him to bed (by myself, it was Mom’s night out), cleaning the kitchen — I found myself at the end of my labours just after 9:00 PM. I had hoped to spend my last hour or so of consciousness reading from a collection of Stanley Milgram’s essays, but before doing so I made the mistake of checking my email (nothing critical there, thankfully), and looking in on the wiki to make sure things were in order.

They weren’t, alas… some twisted soul had spewn their perverted hyperlinks all over 58 separate pages on the system… even going so far as erasing the existing content. Many of the defiled pages had just been set up by new users, and the thought of fledgling wikiheads seeing their work obliterated was enough to overcome any desire to put off a spell of cleaning.

I still don’t know how WikiSpammers do what they do — are they crafting their toxic blend of nonsensical icons and disgusting links by hand, or do they use an automated script? If this particular attack was engineered by a human being, that person spent more than two hours of their precious, finite time on earth to mindlessly deface other people’s work. I was able to restore all of the pages in less than twenty minutes, which demonstrates the old maxim that it’s easier to fix WikiVandalism than it is to create it. Then again, it cost me twenty minutes of my precious, finite time on earth… and last night, tired and frustrated, that was significant.

A week ago, Scott Leslie articulated his decision to enable write-only passwords for his page… a strategy that seems to be gaining popularity with Ed Tech wikis. I can’t argue with anyone who wishes to take this step… in fact I am presently investigating new systems so that we can offer users the ability to write or read-protect their work.

But I am loathe to require global passwords for a number of reasons. For one, unlike Scott’s wiki, this page is not primarily for my own use — it has been positioned as a resource for anyone in the teaching and learning community. Most days, some person I don’t know unexpectedly starts a page to fulfill some purpose I had never imagined. This week, for example, someone has started a set of resource pages on Assistive Technology. I get a sense of palpable satisfaction every time I see someone take useful advantage of the open access of the system. The open door on the UBCWiki appeals to the communitarian, the hippie, the idealistic scholar, and the anarchist that all live inside me (and they don’t agree on much else).

Then again, for every constructive new participant, we seem to attract three or four ScumSuckingSpammers. The need to address this plague grows more pressing every day. I’ve noticed a few novel approaches the past few weeks:

* TopicExchange wiki pages use a Google-redirect so that spammed links do not improve GoogleRank. (Though I’ve noticed that at least a few spammers have tossed their links in anyway.)
* Mattis Manzel (who’s easily got the grooviest page-pic I’ve seen) used the open access of the UBCWiki to pop in and point to a few of his projects, including this University page which takes the Findhorn Garden approach to pests, by setting aside a page just for spammers, which they are free to pollute so long as they confine their filth to that section. “All-inclusive things must be all-inclusive.”
* Lycos recently released in Europe “a screensaver that endlessly requests data from sites that sell the goods and services mentioned in spam e-mail”, hoping to “make the monthly bandwidth bills of spammers soar by keeping their servers running flat out.” There are many potential legal and practical pitfalls, and indeed the site has been down for some time, but the very idea suggests that an offensive counter-attack is possible.
* Raymond Yee is also collecting links on the subject.

I hope Alan’s defiance takes hold more widely. If we back away entirely from open spaces then we will lose more than simple access to some online text documents. I recognise that Evil will likely prevail, but locking up the UBCWiki will be a final resort — this is worth fighting for.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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