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Last Updated: Monday, 15 March, 2004, 14:26 GMT
Rise of the spambusters

By Maggie Shiels
In California

Spam cost businesses an estimated $10bn last year
Ten years ago this month, the world's first spam transmission was made when an American law firm advertised its services to people interested in participating in the green card lottery.

Fast forward to today, and spam - unsolicited e-mails advertising unwanted products or services - accounts for over 60% of all messages flowing across the internet.

At the moment it costs nearly nothing for a spammer to send out millions of emails, thus creating an incentive to send out as many messages as possible, especially because the response rate is so low.

Technology analysts Ferris Research says the burden of dealing with spam cost business $10bn last year.

Stamped out

Bill Gates claims making spammers pay is the secret to killing spam, and he's touting electronic stamps as a way forward.

Let's create a class of email that people can begin to feel confidence in
Richard Gingras, Goodmail Systems
Microsoft's project is called penny black.

It's based on making the sender buy postage by devoting about ten seconds of computing time to solve a mathematical puzzle as proof of their good faith.

It's the brainchild of Cynthia Dwork, a senior researcher at Microsoft's Silicon Valley lab.

"There are about 80,000 seconds in a day, and if we charge ten seconds per message that means a spammer could send only 8,000 messages a day on a given machine," she told the BBC's World Business Report.

"Now suppose the global rate of spam was about 2 billion messages a day - it's actually higher now - then the number of machines that the spam industry as a whole would have to have would be a quarter of a million.

"So their upfront capital costs would be something like a quarter of a billion dollars. And we're just betting the spammers can't afford it."

Pay up

Another approach is that taken by Goodmail Systems: to charge bulk emailers a penny per message to bypass spam filters and to avoid being incorrectly tossed as junk. Yahoo and other email providers are said to be very interested.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates
Bill Gates wants to make spamming too expensive
Goodmail chief executive Richard Gingras says that while the charge won't stop spam, it will separate the good mail from the bad mail.

"Let's begin at least to create an island where good behaviour can happen," he says.

"Let's create a class of email that people can begin to feel confidence in, and that can put consumers back in control and allow legitimate volume mailers to have a trusted dialogue with recipients who have provided their permission to receive those messages in the first place."

But critics are concerned that electronic stamps will diminish the power of email and that charging to send email will hurt the likes of non-profit organisations, self-help groups, and fan sites, in their ability to get their messages and views out to thousands of subscribers.

Good spam, bad spam

In the last quarter, Digital Impact sent a billion emails on behalf of its clients, which range from the Gap to Microsoft.

"A penny is not very much for our clients," says Digital Impact's Hans Peter Brondmo.

"The question is not so much whether our customers could afford to do it, but whether other people who have legitimate reasons for sending e-mail could afford to do it as well, and whether the payment of a penny makes the experience for the end-user - the recipient of the message - any better.

"So does the fact that my customers can afford to pay mean that my customers' email should have priority in your in-box? I suspect that most people would think not."

Industry analysts say for the moment there is no magic bullet to kill spam, and everything is on the table for consideration right now.

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28 Dec 03  |  Business
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03 Dec 03  |  Technology
Microsoft aims to make spammers pay
26 Dec 03  |  Technology
Spammers turn to classic prose
01 Dec 03  |  Technology
Bush signs first US anti-spam law
16 Dec 03  |  Technology

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