Can spam be stopped?

WASHINGTON -- Is there any way to stop the ever-increasing flood of spam? A group of e-mail experts variously suggested better technology, an overhaul of the way the Internet works and new laws -- but they couldn't agree on which approach would work best.

The panelists at an ongoing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) spam conference here couldn't even agree on the definition of spam, with some antispam advocates saying spam is all unsolicited bulk e-mail and some e-mail marketers arguing that spam should be defined more narrowly as unsolicited commercial e-mail that includes false subject lines or misleading e-mail headers.

"There wouldn't be any solicited commercial e-mail if there wasn't some way to approach these people," protested Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association, when other panelists suggested that spam was any unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Wientzen's comment prompted an outbreak of murmurings from other panelists and audience members, but Laura Atkins, president of the antispam SpamCon Foundation, acknowledged that banning all unsolicited bulk e-mail may not be in line with the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment right to free speech. " 'Unsolicited and bulk' may not be the best definition for a law," she said.

The FTC spam hearing comes after a flurry of activity surrounding spam. Organizations and companies have announced spam research efforts, at least two bills aimed at curbing the amount of spam have been introduced in Congress, and others are planned. And a measure just signed into law in Virginia makes some spam activities a felony (see story). Estimates at the FTC hearing of the percentage of all e-mail traffic that is spam ranged from 40% to 75%, and the FTC released a study Tuesday saying two-thirds of all spam contains false information.

Clifton Royston, a systems architect at LavaNet Inc., said the small Hawaiian Internet service provider with about 12,000 customers paid close to $200,000 last year to fight spam. "That's reflected in everyone's Internet bill," Royston said. "A large part of what you're paying for Internet service is because of spam."

On Wednesday, Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he planned to introduce a series of antispam bills, including a federal no-spam registry modeled after do-not-call telemarketing registries, criminal and civil penalties for spammers who don't comply and new antifraud measures (see story). Schumer's legislation, like a bill offered by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, would require commercial e-mail to be labeled as advertising, and he rejected criticisms that a no-spam registry would hamper free speech, saying that commercial speech isn't as protected as political speech under the First Amendment.

"I am saying today that enough is enough," Schumer told the spam conference audience. "It's time to take back the Internet from spammers."

Members of two morning panels yesterday suggested a number of solutions to the growing amount of spam in e-mail users' in-boxes, although several panelists admitted that their solutions may offer only temporary relief. Rob Courtney, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, cited a study released by his group in mid-March that suggested e-mail harvesting programs are fairly easy to fool by spelling out "at" and "dot" in e-mail addresses on Web sites, thus protecting them from some automated spamming activities.

But Courtney acknowledged that spammers may eventually catch on. Others suggested a variety of more sophisticated measures, including dynamically generating e-mail addresses on Web pages in JavaScript.

But William Waggoner, founder of AAW Marketing LLC in Las Vegas, protested that technology techniques like spam filtering are hurting legitimate e-mail marketers. When someone in the audience laughed at that comment, Waggoner fired back, "You think that's funny?"

Waggoner, who collects e-mail addresses of people who sign up for free trips and products at Web sites, also disputed claims from other panelists that the problem with spam is that sending commercial e-mail is cheap. "If you guys saw my Internet bill every month, it would floor most people in this room," he said. "I don't know what this 'cheap' is about."

In addition to Schumer's proposed legislation, panelists discussed a bill reintroduced this month by Sens. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. Their bill, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM), would allow fines of up to $10 per e-mail to senders of unsolicited e-mail who refuse to stop (see story).

Wientzen said he supported the CAN-SPAM legislation because it would separate the good e-mail marketers from the bad ones. But marketer Thomas-Carlton Cowles, director of Empire Towers Corp., said technology needs to be the way to solve the problem. "I think we need to get on with it," Wientzen said in support of CAN-SPAM. "If we spend another year or two trying to come up with something which will answer all of the possibilities, let's face it, by the time the government figures out how to get a bill that deals with literally all the problems, the problems will be very different."

A survey in April of 535 U.S. workers using e-mail, commissioned by e-mail filtering company SurfControl PLC, found that 86% would support legislation that outlaws commercial e-mail with fake headers or misleading subject lines, as the Burns-Wyden bill would do.

But Christine Gregoire, attorney general for the state of Washington, questioned whether CAN-SPAM would preempt more stringent state antispam laws. She suggested that some of the defenses in the bill are weak, including not holding e-mailers responsible for opt-out notices if recipients' in-boxes are full. "Sorry, my mailbox is full with their spam, and that's not a defense," Gregoire said, prompting cheers from the audience of about 350 people.

In the end, the only way to fix the growing spam problem may be a complete overhaul of the Internet, said Gilson Terriberry, president of the Direct Contact Marketing Group Inc. in Champaign, Ill. Terriberry's company is an e-mail list broker that conducts e-mail and paper mail marketing campaigns for other companies, but the "signal-to-noise" ratio in e-mail is becoming so weighted toward spam that most e-mail users are beginning to delete unrecognized e-mail en masse, he said.

Direct e-mail campaigns have, in the past, "leveled the playing field for small businesses," Terriberry said. But he said sending out postcards may soon become a more cost-effective method of reaching customers because so many people are ignoring commercial e-mail. "I think that's too bad," he added.

Terriberry, in an interview after his panel, suggested that some kind of basic change in the architecture of e-mail and e-mail servers is needed, with a less open Internet as the result. He predicted that this approach would take years, since e-mail servers are replaced only slowly.

"The Internet is designed to be an open relay system," he said. "Everything since then has been designed to patch an open system."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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