E-mail Service Puts Spam Back in the Can

Start-up Brightmail promises to kill junk e-mail before it wastes employees' time

Brightmail Inc.

Location: 301 Howard St., 18th Floor, San Francisco, Calif. 94105

Telephone: (415) 365-6133

Web: www.brightmail.com

Niche: Spam filtering service; people examine spam and set filters to block it.

Why it's worth watching: The service stops spam before it enters the corporate e-mail system.

Company officers:

  • Sunil Paul, CEO and co-founder
  • Tim Pozar, director of operations and co-founder
  • Chris Madsen, director of business development and co-founder
  • Jeremy Crandell, product manager and co-founder
  • Company goal: "We want to build the most mission-critical set of e-mail services on the Internet," says Paul.

    Milestones:

  • October 1997: Company founded
  • January 1999: Company introduces antispam service
  • Employees: 70; expects an increase of 100% per year

    Burn money: Total of $17.5 million from Accel Partners, Crosslink Capital Inc., Technology Crossover Ventures, Flatiron Partners, Sippl Macdonald Ventures and individuals

    Customers: AT&T WorldNet, EarthLink Inc., Excite Inc., Juno Online Services Inc.

    Partners: Netscape Communications Corp., Software.com Inc., Sendmail Inc.

    Red flags for IT:

  • Internet providers are starting to filter spam. When that happens, the corporate sector won't need to buy Brightmail's service.
  • It's a service, not a product. If the company goes bust, you're left with nothing.
  • Get your Viagra here! Check out hot babes! Repair your credit! Get rich in no time!

    Welcome to the world of spam. It's hardly the kind of e-mail that keeps the wheels of corporations running smoothly. Brightmail Inc. wants to trash it before it ever hits your company's e-mail gateway.

    Brightmail Anti-Spam Service, aimed at Fortune 500 companies, provides dummy e-mail addresses that appear legitimate to spammers. Brightmail examines the e-mail received at these dummy addresses, hunting for potential spam. The San Francisco-based company runs an around-the-clock operations center staffed by people who read the suspect e-mail to determine its appropriateness. If it is spam, they send updated filtering rules to Brightmail software, which sits in front of the client's e-mail servers.

    Bandwidth Advantage

    Brightmail CEO Sunil Paul cites two major benefits to corporations that use his company's service: a reduction of spam's impact on corporate resources, such as bandwidth, server load and disk space, and a need for much less effort on the part of information technology departments compared with do-it-yourself, server-side solutions and desktop-filtering programs. Paul claims a current 80% interception rate, with continuing efforts to push that number up to 100%.

    The company will go online soon with its first corporate customers. In the meantime, it's building a track record with the service through AT&T Corp. AT&T WorldNet personnel have been testing Brightmail since Oct. 1. The service provider went live with the antispam service on Feb. 1, offering it free to all of its e-mail customers. Edward Plaskon, product management director at WorldNet, says market research indicates that about 10% of the messages customers receive are spam.

    The pilot program, which involved 45,000 individual users of WorldNet, reported that spam dropped by 60% with Brightmail in use.

    Jonathan Penn, a senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., says Internet service providers like WorldNet, not corporations, are Brightmail's bigger market. Corporations want their service providers to handle spam, he says, before it even comes close to their e-mail gateways. And although Brightmail has signed up several large providers that offer filtering capabilities for their e-mail customers, no major corporation is on record as a customer a year after the product's launch.

    However, Penn says Brightmail's service does a good job addressing spam.

    "It has the right mixture of technology and human control," he says. "They've got a great solution that's really unparalleled in its capabilities and accuracy. But the market really hasn't determined that there's a pressing enough need to warrant this kind of solution."

    Spam's Decline

    Overall, Penn says, less attention will be paid to spam for two reasons: a general decrease in spam as companies wise up to permission-based marketing and the short-lived nature of corporate e-mail addresses (due to people changing jobs), giving spammers fewer legitimate mailboxes to target. If spam declines in volume and importance, then filters -- which are becoming part of corporations' standard sets of security tools -- may prove to be adequate, he says.

    Paul disagrees, saying spam is only going to get worse. "Spam is a phenomenon that's driven by fairly small organizations or individuals who are spamming from their homes or businesses," he says. "Those people rely on ISP access. As ISP access gets distributed throughout the world, spam will rise."

    Paul says the company's plans include opening the rules engine to customers so IT departments can set filters to catch e-mail that isn't strictly spam but is still unwanted, designing a similar service for small businesses and building an antivirus product.

    He says he sees the latter as a natural extension of the company's current e-mail service because many viruses arrive embedded in e-mail. A server-based solution that stops viruses at the Internet gateway, as Brightmail does with spam, would give better protection than the currently popular solution of installing antispam software on individual desktops, he says.

    The Buzz -- State of the Market

    Holding the Line On Junk E-mail

    A common trick that spammers use is to make up e-mail addresses by linking domain names with possible user names, such as sue@earthlink.net or joe@timewarner.com. The spammer doesn't know if the account exists, but sending another message into cyberspace is such a small incremental cost that the gamble is worth it.

    Because of these types of "autodialer" programs, Internet service providers get hit with many undeliverable messages. Edward Plaskon, product management director at AT&T WorldNet, says spam makes up a significant portion of WorldNet traffic. AT&T rejects millions of messages per day that are sent to nonexistent WorldNet addresses.

    Corporations can do keyword filtering to block spam. With filtering, a rule checks messages as they arrive. The rule works by testing the sender or searching for keywords in the subject. But it's a crude solution, says Giga Information Group Inc. analyst Jonathan Penn, and often either lets through mail it shouldn't or deletes valuable items.

    Programs like Mail Essentials (www.gficomms.com) have antispam capabilities as well. In addition to security features, this server-based program blocks messages based on the originating domain and checks for keywords that indicate potential spam.

    As people have tried to police spamming on the Internet, a few Web sites have been created to educate people on effective antispam techniques.

    Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC

    www.mail-abuse.org

    A set of tools for service providers to refuse e-mail from other providers suspected of harboring spammers and to prevent their servers from being hijacked by spammers.

    Network Abuse Clearinghouse

    www.abuse.net

    Report abuse; find tools for uncovering the true origins of spam messages.

    Responsible Net Commerce

    www.spam.abuse.net

    Offers tools to limit spam, policies to implement at your site and updates on antispam legislation.

    Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail

    www.cauce.org

    Lobbying organization working on legislation to stop and punish spammers, with affiliate groups in Europe and Australia.

    Johnson is a freelance writer in Seattle.

    Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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