Charles Arthur On Technology

A spammer in the works

As you read these words, an electronic rain is falling endlessly around the Web, falling onto the millions of blogs set up by eager, well-meaning people who want to air their views and let other people comment on them.

As you read these words, an electronic rain is falling endlessly around the Web, falling onto the millions of blogs set up by eager, well-meaning people who want to air their views and let other people comment on them.

The rain falls on the most praised and the most ignominious, the most important and the most trivial. It's generated by spammers, who have only one purpose - which they follow with the fixedness of any parasite - and that is to boost the Google rankings of their spam sites.

Here's how it works. You start a blog. You decide that it would be good to allow your readers to comment on the things you say; after all, they've read it, so why not let them give their insight (which might be greater than yours)? So you make it feasible for anyone who reads the page to write a comment. No registration, no clicking on a link. Just type some text, click on a button, and there's the comment.

But here's the reality: pretty soon a spammer will find your blog and begin posting junk on it, using automated systems working far faster than any number of people.

Take my own as a typical example. The first post was on Wednesday 7 July. The first comment came on a post made two days later. The first attempted spam came on 20 July, attempting to "comment" on an old post. The content was junk - multiple links to a site selling cigars, US visas, and an online flower shop. It came from a broadband PC in Israel, one I'm sure had been taken over by a hacker and hired out to a spammer to run a program that would post spam onto blogs.

That was the first drop of rain. Now it's a steady drizzle. Last weekend, the various defences I have against junk comments blocked about 1,000 attempts to post spam. They come from all over the world: Korea, Australia, Britain, the US, a Bulgarian ISP (or one of its customers) and what appears to be the ministry of something-or-other ("Ministerstvo spravedlnosti") in the Czech Republic.

How do I know where the attempts come from? The blog server records the IP address - in effect, the caller ID of the computer trying to post the spam - which can then be compared against a global database of ISPs and which addresses they provide services to.

What's more interesting is why spammers want to post irrelevant rubbish onto blogs, even to posts that are no longer visible. They have two reasons, both to do with search engines. Google treats blogs as more important than "normal" websites, because blog content changes so much more quickly. A blog might have new posts perhaps a dozen times a day, with fresh links to websites that had previously been overlooked. So the "Googlebot" (the software program that sniffs around the Web to see where links are being made) often returns to blogs. Secondly, the Googlebot looks for changed information on the website; even though a comment might have been made on a post that nobody is reading, the webserver tells the Google index that something has happened there, and Google adds the comment and its associated links to the index.

Result, for the spammer: an unprotected blog is a splendid way to promote yourself in Google's index to push pointless (but profitable) pursuits such as online poker or "dieting" drugs. Many people don't realise their blogs are being used in this way. Try a search on Google using the phrase "A professor of classics at McGill University and the author of Autobiography of Red". Wow! That's 3,380 hits about Anne Carson! (You know, the professor of classics at McGill! What do you mean, you've never heard of her?) Odd that this precise phrase should turn up so much? Ah, but have a closer look. The great majority of links are to spam sites: the phrase (lifted from Amazon) had a few extra hyperlinks to spam sites added, and was posted to thousands of comment boxes in blogs all over the Web. To see how bad it can get, have a look at one such "polluted" blog post, at the "Cowbell Chronicles" ( This idle thought posted in 2002 has a comments area that is a repository for a multitude of spam artists.

This electronic rain is flooding all the corners of the Web. Complaining is about as effective as shouting at rainclouds: one passes, another one appears. Many people try complaining to ISPs but as an ISP shuts down one "compromised" machine, a dozen more crop up, always Windows machines, usually taken over by viruses such as MyDoom, which were crafted specifically to create a host of "zombie" machines.

The parasitic economics of spam apply here. The spammer piggybacks on the blogger's bandwidth, upping the costs of running a blog by increasing the length of comments pages, and by calling up the comments page to auto-post commercial junk on it. Even if your comments page is only 2 Kbytes, having it called up by spammers 200,000 times a year means a bandwidth bill for an extra 400 Mbyte.

What sort of shelter is there from this deluge? Some bloggers don't accept comments. Some force contributors to register. Some force them to enter a series of numbers or letters that aren't machine-readable. Some require an e-mail and send a message with a hyperlink to click before the comment can appear. Others, including me, have programs that analyse the content of would-be comments for "spam words". It's not perfect; the other day I found my own attempts at a comment on my blog blocked. Just as with e-mail, spam is throttling one of the great communications mediums enabled by the internet, and particularly the Web.

Who's to blame? Not just the spammers. Blame must also rest on the search engines. By not finding better ways to prevent spammers guying its index, Google, the most popular search engine, is allowing the problem to worsen. Allowing bloggers to report offending spam sites, and then removing the sites from Google, might be one step. It would be a challenge to operate, but anything that throws a spammer onto the back foot must be good.

A final criticism goes to Microsoft, for creating a consumer operating system of astonishing insecurity. If Windows 98 (the first version of Windows written when Microsoft was properly aware of the internet and networks) and its successors had been written with security in mind, there would be far fewer "compromised" Windows machines being used in this way. Sure, there would be some insecure machines, but not the legions drizzling rubbish upon those of us who want to engage in dialogue without being interrupted by parasites.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers