The Matrix was released 13 years ago and immediately introduced new special effects techniques and re-introduced old story elements in a new format for our digital age. First, a big mazel tov on your bar mitzvah, Matrix. But I’m sad to say that your central vision of a heroic character who hacks the system for freedom has been taken over by spammers.
I’m not going to put a spoiler alert on a movie that can now technically have its own Facebook page. You all know the story: a programmer is so powerful he discovers ways to manipulate the code of a giant virtual reality system to fight the machines that have enslaved humanity within. And he knows kung fu. While the machines attempt to find Neo and crew in the real world so they can stop his access to the computer system, once inside Neo and his gang are able to manipulate the system to their advantage. (Let’s agree to not discuss the sequels and Neo’s ability to manipulate the real world too, mmkay?)
Spammers are a lot like Neo in that regard–once they’re in the system they thwart the rules to promote products or obtain information. It can be as simple as automating the sign-up process to create bots that send out messages to more sophisticated techniques that take simple actions (clicking a link to see a picture of a giant spider that burst out of a girl’s elbow) and hijacking user information instead. Unfortunately, nobody has been able to produce evidence that spammers are secretly trying to free us from an evil plot to harvest our body heat to feed a network of world-dominating machines in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic world. I’m pretty sure they’re just in it for the money.
So when I see stories about social media platforms suing spammers for their actions, I find it a bit amusing. Like the most recent example of Twitter suing five major spammers for violating their rules. A social media platform literally gets to write its own rules in terms of your ability to do something: log in, send something, access data, post data. If Twitter wanted to force you to tap a button with a picture of a cute puppy before you send a tweet with the letter ‘e’ it could do that. If Facebook wanted you to type in the phrase ‘I still don’t understand why Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk turned his pants purple’ before you posted a photo it could do that. These are not logical things to do (although, really, why purple?) but they can do it because they control the platform and its technical requirements. When a platform then resorts to suing spammers rather than just implementing technical changes to lock out the spammers, it’s partially admitting defeat.
Not that admitting defeat is a bad thing. Even the machines in The Matrix were trying to track down Neo in the real world because there were access points that the machines just couldn’t lock down. In our less-Keanu world, social media platforms have to balance the ease of access (which has made platform use spread like wildfire) against technical restrictions (which could limit spam at the cost of limiting a greater amount of legitimate usage).
Lawrence Lessig, one of the most brilliant minds when it comes to the intersection of technology and the law, first spoke about the similarity between laws (code) and the Internet (code) in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Interestingly, that book came out a few months after The Matrix. The book has since been updated and Codev2 can be downloaded for free. While Lessig focuses more on government regulation issues, I find the comparison between legal code (what we will attempt to control through punishment) and programming code (what we will attempt to control through access) fascinating.
Lawsuits are typically the final solution. It is almost a tacit acknowledgement that no other solution works. That is not always the case–sometimes you file lawsuits against a few bad actors to scare the dozens or hundreds or thousands of other bad actors (and that’s not always a good idea, right RIAA?). But the majority of lawsuits are trying to fix a problem that can’t otherwise be fixed. A lawsuit by a platform like Twitter against spammers, or one by Facebook against clickjackers, or one by Google against Google Money spammers, is an admission that the platform can’t control spam by themselves. The spammers are in the system and the only way they can be stopped is by sending giant floating robotic lawsuits to cut off their access.
I’m sure the choice to sue the spammers was a difficult one for all these platforms. The lawsuits send messages to the spammers and the public and that’s without getting resolved. The outcome of the lawsuit can send many more messages, not all of which may be favorable to the platform. But I find the notion of turning to the courts when you’ve let bad people into your system an interesting choice even if it’s the right choice.
Maybe, in the end, we all side with the machines. Whoa.