Internet: Spam Wars – Stick a Stamp On It!

Published Apr 6, 2004
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Edit page New page Hide edit links

It’s official: Spam now accounts for more than half of all e-mails sent every day. And there is no respite in sight; analysts estimate that it will take us only three years to reach the 70 percent mark. In an environment of ever-smarter spammers and increasingly disgruntled e-mail users, ISPs and anti-spam experts are coming up with new weapons.

Internet: Spam Wars – Stick a Stamp On It!-Body-2

100 Million
In March 2003, Telenor launched their spam-filtering software as a service to the several hundred thousand Internet access subscribers who were getting their inboxes clogged with unsolicited e-mail. The software is offered for a small monthly fee, and around a fifth of the subscribers have downloaded it. A year later (almost to the day), the service has stopped 100 million spam messages. Of course, this means nothing to the spammers, who just keep on sending them out, coming up with new tricks and small adjustments to the old ones to get across their messages of cheap Viagra and instant weight loss.

New Laws
Legislative attempts have not lived up to their promise so far. On both sides of the Atlantic, e-mail users are disappointed with the efficiency of anti-spam laws, passed at the end of 2003 by British and American governments, among others. “The measures seem to be too little too late,” said Rupert Walmsley, a partner at British ISP ITC Internet, which offers Web hosting along with spam filtering. The problem seems to be that the law is less strong than people think, without the injunctive powers necessary for quick, decisive action that will stop the spammers.

Both the U.S. and the British bills allow unsolicited email as long as it includes an opt-out function – giving the user an opportunity to unsubscribe from the mailing list. The U.S. law allows this kind of spam for both corporate and private recipients, while the U.K. legislation protects private e-mail users from this kind of quasi-legitimate spam technique. The American version, known as “CAN-SPAM” is slightly more aggressive, and offers ISPs and states to sue over non-compliance with the law, such as failure to mark e-mails as promotional, and spammers can face up to $2 million in fines if they are caught. But they rarely are. In fact, very few spammers still operate from U.S. or British soil, making it hard for these countries to make effective legislative efforts. But while the mood is definitely down in Great Britain, the American Internet industry is taking action.

There are, however, signs that some good might come of these laws. In early March, several of the largest Internet service providers in the U.S. joined together in an unprecedented effort to stop spam. Microsoft, America Online, Earthlink, and Yahoo! filed six lawsuits against hundreds of people accusing them of breaking “CAN-SPAM”- laws. These Internet giants are targeting well-known spammers under the U.S. bill – and are hoping to get quick results. “Congress gave us the necessary tools to pursue spammers with stiff penalties, and we in the industry didn’t waste a moment moving with speed and resolve to take advantage of the new law,” says Randall Boe, AOL’s top lawyer and executive vice president. The coming months will show us if they are able to hurt the spammers this way.

If the postal service delivered mail for free, our porchfront mailboxes would pile up with weight-loss fliers, supermarket offers, and other kinds of unsolicited promotional devices. But snail-mail costs money – postage has to be paid. And some people, including Bill Gates, are starting to argue that this might be the only solution for e-mail as well. Demanding that users put estamps on e-mail could kill the spammers’ business model dead. The main reason we get so much spam is that it is virtually free to send – one e-mail costs as much as a million messages.
E-postage has been discussed in the industry for several years – a Microsoft research team dedicated to the concept has been operating since 2001 – but it has never been a public debate. E-mail has been free since the beginning, and nobody wants to be the first company to start talking about charging money for it. But spam has become such a problem that the climate for this kind of discussion has begun to change, and Microsoft are in a position to spearhead the debate.

Backed by Microsoft
Gates spoke about the concept at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, and it has since been elaborated further as part of Microsoft’s anti-spam strategy. The postage involved is rather different from the stamps used on snail-mail. Instead of paying a cent or two, the user would by postage by donating use of his or her computer for, say, 10 seconds to solve a mathematical problem. Ten seconds of processor time would presumably not be a problem for the average e-mail users, but for a spammer sending millions of mail, it would entail buying a lot of computing power. This would make spamming too expensive to be viable as a marketing tool. Some spam-fighting softwaremakers already use similar strategies.

Others are thinking straight cashfor- e-mail. The idea is that a onecent postage fee wouldn’t mean much to regular users, but to a spammer the cents would add up to many dollars when they massmail Viagra offers to their mailing lists. Some companies are betting that this may be the way to stop spam. Goodmail Systems has been in touch with Yahoo! to sell its cash-based version. They want to charge spammers one cent per message to bypass spam filters and avoid being labelled and thrown away as junk. But while this sounds good as a spam-fighting tool, it may not be so good for regular users; what if it kills legitimate mail as well? You don’t have to think about cost when you are sending e-mail, and this is a big part of the medium’s allure.

Internet: Spam Wars – Stick a Stamp On It!-Body

Democracy Issues
The postage issue inevitably raises issues of free expression. One thing e-mail allows that other media, such as the telephone, do not, is publication to large groups of people. It is easy to send a message to twenty friends, or post messages to a topical mailing list. One cent per e-mail adds up to real money for communities that converse on common topics such as cancer, politics or sports. “It detracts from your ability to speak and to state your opinions to large groups of people,” David Farber, a veteran technologist who runs a mailing list with more than 20,000 subscribers, told the Associated Press. “It changes the whole complexion of the net.” Goodmail aims to address this by offering some free e-mails for individuals, as well as discount packages for mailing lists and communities.

E-postage has the added downside of hurting the people with the least resources the most. All over the world, e-mail has become an inexpensive mode of communication for people with low income. Populations in many developing countries would be hit very hard by a one-cent postage, and deterring e-mail use in these parts of the world hurts the democratising effects of new media in a very bad way. One thing the Internet industry does not want, is to make the Net and electronic mail a tool only available to the affluent. John Patrick, former vice president of Internet technology at IBM, expresses concern: “We have to think of not only, let’s say, the relatively well-off half billion people using e-mail today, but the 5 or 6 billion who aren’t using it yet but who soon will be,” he says.

Will it Work?
Besides, it just may not work. Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers is not convinced the estamp is the way to go. “The spammers will probably just keep changing their mailbox names,” Cerf told AP. “I continue to be impressed by the agility of spammers.” Other issues: Who gets the money? How do you set up a system to keep track of it? How do you protect this system from hackers and spammers – who are always looking for and finding loopholes? Not an easy task. The idea of sticking a stamp on e-mail is still underdeveloped, but if the Net’s big guns find their way around the problem, spammers may have to come up with a radically new idea to get their weightloss and Viagra-touting messages across. As it stands now, a manypronged attack seems to be necessary, using legal as well as technical approaches.

Bookmark and Share

Do you have any comments to this articel, please let us now:

Do you have any comments to this articel, please let us know:

Please be civil.

(Use Markdown for formatting.)

This question helps prevent spam:





Mobile News
Mobile news

Our news on
your website


Do you have any
tips to us


sitemap xml