Everyone Hates Spammers (And How Blockchain Can Help)

Ponder is an app that allows users to discover new podcasts based on their existing subscriptions, and store their subscriptions permanently on the Arweave blockchain. But the Ponder ecosystem, at its heart, is about connecting Podcast listeners to each other and having conversations about the Podcasts they are fans of. It is a social network, free from prying eyes, as anonymous as you want to be and ultimately run by the community.

Ownership of data and integrity of posts (combating spam) are often discussed and on our minds at decentapps.

Email Spam

I was talking to DMac, the brains behind the MyMail protocol recently and we discussed both the importance and resilience of SMTP, and its potential to be reborn, even stronger, on the back of blockchain technology. A robust and proven protocol for handling the processing of large amounts of messages free from security issues, from spam, from prying eyes.

Spammers in particular are a plague, even with a centralised megacorp of Google's stature at the reigns. If you're not getting spam, you've done well, and Google's done well - but even then, Google has had to implement such drastic measures that most SMEs can't even host their own mail servers without jumping through more hoops than is worth the effort.

This presents a number of problems, business and personal.

The Problems

You do not have ownership of your data

Individuals are increasingly concerned about who has eyes on their data (according to Statista 38% of people in North America are worried about the government reading their emails) and businesses are faced with being virtually blocked from keeping confidential emails "in house". Google therefore become the gatekeepers of that data.

An expensive war of attrition

Google continues to improve its filters and countermeasures, but the spammers still find ways of getting through. It is a never ending battle, and that battle costs someone a lot of money. And who, ultimately, ends up paying for that?

Your digital identity belongs to Google

One of the problems still being solved by blockchain is the fact that email is being used to verify that we are who we say we are. For many people this means Gmail. And you cannot get a Gmail account any more without a phone number - joining more dots for advertisers, increasing Google's value, at your expense.

YouTube recently informed me that I had to verify myself with a credit card to watch a video...on how to change the coil on my e-cigarette. Yes, it's easy to join those dots too, and see how an innocent policy has led to this, but it's still a travesty against our privacy. I believe it's innocent, but it's still the innocent actions of a legal entity whose only reason for existence is the profit of shareholders. Google have already become the KYC of the internet. I'm not sure we should be comfortable with that.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and others have streamlined this process by allowing you to use your account as a virtual passport. Allowing them to make even more connections and amass more data about your digital profile. It's not a situation that is improving, or going to improve if we continue down this path together.

The Solution

The MyMail protocol solves two of these problems with relative ease, thanks to a couple of factors that are inherent to blockchain technology. The final problem, perhaps the largest, is partially solved by a decentralised alternative to verified KYC entities. A full solution to DID (decentralised identity) is being worked on by a growing number of interesting projects but will take time to implement and mature. DID deserves its own post but in the interim, for those wanting to find out about it, you can start with the very promising KILT Protocol. While still in early stages, they are doing some of the most interesting work in this area.

The Caveat

Before we talk about the positives, let's lead straight into what some may baulk at. The hidden cost of Web 2.0 "free" services is gone, but that means that there's a transparent and direct cost to the end user. Every single mail that you send via the MyMail protocol costs money. This may sound outrageous until we hear the cost. Think for a moment what you would pay for a Gmail with the G detached. I'd wager it's worth a couple of dollars a month to go ad-free, pry-free, spam-free, completely encrypted, your data belonging solely to you. And if I tell you you can send 800 emails every month for that amount? That's something for you to weigh up, and decide if it's worth that sole, transparent cost.

Ownership of data

By its very nature, blockchain is private. Every message is signed with a cryptographic signature that cannot be forged. If the protocol tell you I sent you an email from my permamail address (listed at the end of this article) then that is certifiably true. Not only that but every message sent, and stored forever on Arweave, is encrypted with those same virtually unhackable algorithms, unreadable by anyone but you, or anyone you share your private key with.

It's hard not to go on a tangent here, because this cryptographic technology is incredibly exciting and not too hard to understand, from my layman's understanding, but we'll save that for another post too.

Those damned spammers!

While sending 1000 emails for not much more than a couple bucks a month sounds like an amazing deal, it won't be such music to the ears of spammers. These people rely on the free SMTP mail protocol, with a success rate of just 1 in 12.5m according to a recent study by a team of UCs Berkeley and San Diego, they're blown out of the water. Shut out of the new ecosystem overnight. Gone.

On top of that, the aforementioned cryptographic signatures mean that you can effectively ensure that mails to and from you are verified as authentic. It doesn't take a lot of work to remove bad actors from the network, and it doesn't add any costs to you, as the end user.

This will also solve Google's problem with the massive issue of search engine spam, and the varying degrees with which they succeed in stopping their results being manipulated by white, grey and black hat search engine optimisers. Perhaps unfortunately for Google, it's all completely free and open source. The same principles apply. But we'll save that for another day. In the interim, if you're interested in that, check out The Graph project as a good example of what's to come.

How this Applies To The Ponder Ecosystem

Ponder is an app that allows users to discover new podcasts based on their existing subscriptions, and store their subscriptions permanently on the Arweave blockchain But the Ponder ecosystem, at its heart, is about connecting Podcast listeners to each other and having conversations about the Podcasts they are fans of. It is a social network, free from prying eyes, as anonymous as you want to be and ultimately run by the community.

Ownership of data and integrity of posts (combating spam) are often discussed and on our minds at decentapps. Obviously there is a lot of crossover between MyMail's solutions to privacy, security and spam are very similar. And we are grateful for the fantastic work of many scientists and other clever people in recent decades up to now that made this not only possible, but relatively easy to implement.

The cost

And yes, again this comes at a price — a transparent one time micro-fee per post(!) that goes to Arweave and to the Ponder ecosystem. To ensure the future of both. For this fee, you get ad-free, censorship resistant, community run, private, secure, and otherwise-free open source software. But again these prices are in line with what we discussed above about MyMail's fees.

Data ownership

In the Ponder ecosystem, your data is always yours - and any algorithms that you might like to take part in the use of, such as for podcast discovery, are always and will always opt-in. No one is trying to claim copyright, or reuse your public posts for advertising purposes. The public posts, if they belong to anyone, belong to the community you are an integral part of. Everything else is locked down cryptographically, just as with MyMail.

One additional benefit that blockchain brings to this space is censorship resistance.

Fork us

decentapps is committed to transparency not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's programmed into the very infrastructure of an open blockchain. Ponder itself, while under our stewardship and beyond, must remain competitive or significantly cheaper than say Reddit Premium, or — as is the beauty of open source — the ecosystem will be rightly forked, done better, and users can just port their private data across to the new community, because it belongs to you. Oh, and the posts too. Because they belong to the community, always. This is the very antithesis of a walled garden.

Spammers and malicious content

Spam is a problem for Reddit, and any user-generating content platform in the Web 2.0 sphere. Thankfully it's not on the level that SMTP is dealing with, but it's probably obvious to any of you who are regulars on one or more of these platforms. We watch projects like KILT closely because we look forward to integrating their solutions in the future.

Although spam is a fairly easy thing to distinguish, as is illegal content (something else that Arweave has very carefully and impressively found ways to combat), malicious content, from toxicity to people simply not agreeing with you, is a spectrum that is far more difficult to manage, and one that we also spend a lot of time thinking about. Our community of podcast fans and podcasters is censorship resistant, and while we believe that is a big improvement on the status quo, it presents problems. Something that blockchain helps to solve, but it's a long post, and this one has gone on long enough, so let's save it for next time.

Contact

As always, being only human, I'm happy to be corrected and to have a positive discussion about alternative ideas on this, what you would like us to expand on next, or about blockchain in general. You can contact me directly at the addresses below.

And apologies, by the way, to our three whole followers (Hi Sue!), for the delay between the last post and this one. I have reprioritised some tasks and will do better with the next one!

Cheers :)
Niall

meatspace: niall@decentapps.eu
permamail: sVIBlYrNmBatLpYrMNqPP8ZxZcYq-DTSX14Oc1v60c0