Interview with a link spammer

It's nothing personal...

The legal question

But what about the legal question? Here's where Sam distances himself, very definitely, from email spammers - particularly those who use tailored viruses to turn broadband-linked PCs into spam generators. "I'm using badly-configured proxy servers. I believe that's different from those which are hacked. But I speak to the top seven or eight link spammers, and they don't use bot PCs. People who do blog spamming won't be doing email spamming."

Using proxy servers, Sam argues, is legal. (There seems to be some confirmation of this: you're not altering the machine's configuration, which would be illegal under the Computer Misuse Act, you're just using it to do something.) Sending viruses and using bots is not. "As well as being illegal, how much email spam gets through? The big link spammers, and me, we don't want to end up sharing a cell with a 300-pound guy called 'Bubba'. The moral argument, of whether this is the 'right' thing to do, is for the individual," says Sam. "The legal question is another matter."

In fact, the law would probably favour Sam. It's hard to argue the difference between a person using a computer to post a comment, and a person using a computer to use a computer to post a comment. Will the initiative by Google, Yahoo and MSN, to honour "don't follow" links defeat Sam and his ilk? "I don't think it'll have much effect in the short, medium or long term. The search engines caused the problem" - we didn't quite follow this bit of logic, but Sam continued - "and they're doing this to placate the community. It won't work because most blogs and forms are set up with the best intentions, but when people find hard graft has to go into it they're left to rot. To use this, they'll all have to be updated. The majority won't be. And there'll just be trackback spamming."

By this Sam means spammers setting up their own blogs, and referencing posts on zillions of blogs, which will then incestuously point back to the spammer, whose profile is thus raised. So what does put a link spammer off? It's those trusty friends, captchas - test humans are meant to be able to do but computers can't, like reading distorted images of letters. "Even user authentication can be automated." (Unix's curl command is so wonderfully flexible.)

"The hardest form to spam is that which requires manual authentication such as captchas. Or those where you have to reply to an email, click on a link in it; though that can be automated too. Those where you have to register and click on links, they're hard as well. And if you change the folder names where things usually reside, that's a challenge, because you just gather lists of installations' folder names."

For Sam, every day brings more challenges. Not just from the angry bloggers; nor only from the search engines coming up with new algorithms and HTTP tags. There's all the other link spammers too. "It's like a 1500-metre race. You get a little bit ahead but then the others catch up," says Sam. But he's confident he'll stay in what is primly called the "search engine optimisation" business for a while yet.

Why? Because the demand exists. "The reality is that people purchase Viagra, they require porn, they gamble online. When people do that, there's money being made." And if this sounds suspiciously like an "ends justify means" argument to you - it does to us too. But Sam doesn't mind. He's just adding a few thousand more blogs to his list and readying the next spam run. Nothing personal. ®

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