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EDITIONS
Thursday, 19 June, 2003, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Is Spam paralyzing the web?
Computer user
Microsoft, the biggest software corporation in the world, is sueing fifteen companies for clogging up its email system with junk.

Anyone who has ever found their electronic Inbox filled with unsolicited invitations to join west African moneylaundering schemes, buy discounted DVDs or have their penises enlarged - which basically means just about everyone with a computer - will know what spam is.

The term comes from the Monty Python joke, but Microsoft claims that it's a deadly serious problem which risks paralysing global communication.

Spam accounts for almost half of all email traffic and business expects to spend twenty billion dollars this year stopping unwanted emails from getting through. That's because spam clogs up in-boxes, slows down computer networks and takes up bandwidth, the arteries of the internet

And four out of five children in a recent American survey said they had received inappropriate spam e-mails including adverts for drugs, get-rich-quick schemes and pornography.


JEREMY PAXMAN
We are joined now by Geoff Sutton from Microsoft and Peter Sommer of the LSE. Is this legal challenge likely to work?

PETER SOMMER
They seem to be adopting different tactics in the US and the UK. Here in the United Kingdom they are going a criminal route. They want to use the computer misuse act. That is interesting rather than sure-fire because there is a higher standard of proof and collecting the evidence necessary to meet the tests that the legislation requires, could be difficult. But nevertheless, I welcome it as one weapon against spam which bothers us all.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
There is an inconsistency in Microsoft's position. You're taking action against some companies but you yourself have not gone along with the proposal in California that people be obliged to opt into spam.

GEOFF SUTTON:
We are clear that the enforcement action we're taking now against the spammers is one of four strands on how to combat the problem. You can't just take legal action, we have to work with Government on legislation, we have to educate the consumers on how to improve the situation and also we have to improve the software for this issue. So, we are working with the EU and the Government here and in the US, we are working with Government bodies there to try and establish the right framework and approach.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
Can it be stopped?

PETER SOMMER:
It is like a lot of other things in life, it is like wanting world peace or a cure for cancer, there are things you can do to ameliorate the position but anyone looking for a magic bullet is going to look in vain. There is no magic bit of legislation. There is no magic technology. There are all sorts of things you can try, some of them legal, some of them technical, some of them in the public policy domain, some in the educational domain. Some of them will work, some won't. What I am bothered about is that there may be over keen trigger-happy legislators who want to make their mark but aren't prepared to do the hard work to get the legislation right.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
If there isn't a way of stopping this increase in spam, what is going to happen to global communication?

GEOFF SUTTON:
It is critical. If you look back five years, few people had e-mail accounts. Now it is a common way of communicating. It works brilliantly for people. It still works brilliantly but we have to try and get on top of this problem and just try and end it.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
What will happen, why are you trying to do that, why does it matter?

GEOFF SUTTON:
Because this is a crucial way for people to communicate. It works for business. It works for consumers.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
It is a matter of triviality to open your inbox and go delete, delete, delete for all the junk that you have received.

GEOFF SUTTON:
It costs business something like 3.4 billion a year in the UK to deal with bandwidth costs and lost productivity. It is a waste of people's time.

PETER SOMMER:
Some of the stuff is unpleasant. It reaches children. We want to do something about that if nothing else.

PETER SOMMER:
I remember interviewing Bill Gates about three or four years ago and he saying, explicitly we may provide the technology that makes the dissemination of pornography but it is not our problem. You are now saying it is still not your problem but you want to do something about it.

GEOFF SUTTON:
We are a responsible company and we understand we need to get on top of a problem like this in order for technology to improve and for us to be able to help change people's lives. We see we have a position of responsibility to try and solve this problem. If that is a change from where we were, that's fine, it is a good change.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
It is definitely a change. But, what do you think will happen if it continues to grow at the rate it is growing now?

PETER SOMMER:
We will have to put up with it. There are people like me who have had e-mail addresses for the last 20 years. I cannot function as an academic, as a consultant, without e-mail. I need the global system; I have to put up with it. I welcome all these little initiatives that we're getting. I hope some of them succeed. I am also on alarm that some of them are probably unrealistic and might have adverse effects. We have to live with it. It is rather like having to put up, to use your phrase, with the fact that there isn't world peace. I would like to be living in a world without conflict. It is rather like that.

GEOFF SUTTON:
There are things that consumers can do as well. They need to protect their e-mail addresses, make sure they don't give them out, don't respond to spam. There is a bunch of things that we as users can do.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
You still get all this junk if you don't give out your address.

GEOFF SUTTON:
You can reduce it and ease the problem. We block 80% of all e-mails coming through every day.

JEREMY PAXMAN:
A lot of people don't want junk spam from Microsoft themselves but they get it?

GEOFF SUTTON:
Part of the things we're discussing with governments and policies is the whole idea of consent, allowing consumers the choice.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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 ON THIS STORY
Jeremy Paxman
discussed whether spam is paralyzing the internet
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