Two Four-Letter Words: Spam and Free

Spam is, for many of us, the worst aspect of Web 2.0. The threat of spam of course creates an need, and hence an opportunity, for spam-fighting services. Last week, I compared four of them: Akismet, Defensio, Mollom, and TypePad AntiSpam. The comparison was prompted by the launch of the last of these (the list, like the comparison table in the previous post, is in order of launch date).

TPAS is interesting, not just because it is the most recent, but because it has claims to be the most free. I use the plural claims because TPAS seems to make that claim with respect to each sense of the word free: free of charge (gratis) and free (libre, open source) software.

In this post, I’ll extend the comparison between the four services with respect to each sense of free. First, free of charge. The last two lines of the comparison table refer to this kind of free. The first of these lines shows that each of the four services is free for personal use.

The last line of the table asks whether each service is free for commercial use. It answers “Yes” for TPAS, and “No” for each of the other services. Following some email exchanges and some thinking, it seems that the pricing issue needs clarification.

Akismet has multiple levels of commercial API key. For example, a problogger key is $5/month. Given that a problogger is defined for this purpose as one who makes more than $500/month, the cost seems reasonable (but then, I’m not a problogger). That an enterprise key starts at $50/month also seems reasonable (but then, I’m not an enterprise).

Defensio is free for commercial use up to a limited amount of traffic. That’s a paraphrase of an email. Defensio.com is down at the moment. I don’t know whether that means that the service is down.

Mollom currently describes its future pricing model as follows.

The basic Mollom service will be free… but it will be limited in volume and features… Our goal is to make sure that the free version of Mollom goes well beyond meeting the needs of the average site…

For large and mission-critical business and enterprise websites, we will offer commercial subscriptions. We are currently working out our commercial pricing scheme for access to more advanced features, unlimited traffic, enhanced performance, reliability and support.

TPAS, per its FAQ, “is free, and will always be free, regardless of the number of comments your blog receives.” The FAQ also addresses how Six Apart will support the service; the firm “may choose to provide enterprise-class services on top of TypePad AntiSpam at some point in the future.”

TPAS is the outlier on this “free as in beer” issue, but I now think that it’s closer to the others than I first thought and implied. Like the other three, it seeks to make money from enterprise clients (and I don’t see anything wrong with that). The difference is that it doesn’t attach the price tag to AntiSpam itself.

TPAS is also the outlier on the free software, or “free as in freedom,” issue. As I remarked in the earlier post, “while the TPAS inference engine is open, the rules are hidden.”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Akismet, Mollom, or both move to a similar model. I base this on the following assumptions.

  1. Spam-fighting software has the classic intelligent system split between inference engine and rules base. In particular, Akismet and Mollom already have this architecture.
  2. The action is in the rules, which are specific to the domain of spam-fighting.
  3. Following from the above, you don’t give much away to spammers or to competitors if you free/open-source your engine.
  4. The people behind Akismet and Mollom don’t want to cede the “free high ground” to TPAS.

With respect to this aspect of free (libre), as with respect to the first aspect (gratis), I may have exaggerated TPAS’ outlier status. TPAS does have a legitimate claim to being more free than its competitors in each of the two senses of free. But the gap between TPAS and, say, Akismet, may not be as great or as durable as might at first appear.

That conclusion is, of course, my opinion. Comments (or email: andrew at changingway etc.) would be a good way of telling me that you draw a different conclusion or that my conclusion is based on faulty premises or reasoning. I’d welcome other relevant comments. For example, you might know of a spam-fighting service other than the four I’ve focused on.

9 thoughts on “Two Four-Letter Words: Spam and Free”

  1. I always forget that reading licenses is a bit like reading religious texts: It’s all in the interpretation. From the conversations we’ve had inside Six Apart, the enterprise-class services we’d talked about perhaps offering around TypePad AntiSpam would be things like reporting or monitoring, etc. The core ability to protect your blog from spam is free and will remain so for all users. We’ve just seen, honestly, that a lot of our professional user base likes having services that they can pay us for, in order to get support and have a relationship with our team, and we didn’t want to close the door to those customers or that potential.

    Regarding the open source-ness of TPAS, it feels a bit like we’re getting into the territory where defintions are less useful and people make their evaluations on a gut level or on an emotional basis. I say that not as a criticism, but just as an observation. Not speaking for Six Apart, but just for myself, it feels like the logic or rules in an antispam service are the data, and we don’t share all of our data. That doesn’t mean the engine that runs them isn’t open source, just that we keep some data private. This is analogous to how, for example, SpamAssassin treats its rulesets, which many users customize, tweak, or invent without sharing.

    We’re definitely open to suggestions of how to make these ideas clearer, or how we can improve what we’re doing, but if the first result of TypePad AntiSpam is that it encourages other services to become more free (as in both beer and speech), that seems like it can only be a good thing. Oddly, I haven’t heard more people arguing for that, or at least I’ve been too busy to find those conversations.

  2. We’re debating on releasing our spam solution. It still requires work and, I know it sounds silly, we’re still working out a name. It’s based on spamassassin and we’re working on plugins for many of the different platforms.

    My biggest problem with Akismet is its inability to deal with false positives. Granted, you can always mark a incorrectly labeled comment as not being spam and use the form on the Akismet website but both seem to be black holes to us.

  3. In interviews and speeches I’ve mentioned the “open sourceness” of Akismet a few times in the past year, addressing this very issue. The “engine” part of Akismet that handles the incoming API requests and such is trivial – literally less than 200 lines of code. A good measure of Open Source is whether something meaningful can be built on top of it, like how people can use WordPress MU to build systems like Edublogs. Releasing the non-rules/data part of Akismet wouldn’t provide much value to the world, and we’re not desperate to call things “open source” just for surface PR benefit.

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