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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK
Can we ever stop spam?
Technology consultant Bill Thompson is pleased that unwanted e-mail is back on the political agenda, but he disagrees with the proposals to stop spam.

Derek Wyatt, the Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, is a very nice man.

I can say that with confidence having met him first about eight years ago when he was running a cable television company and seemed to have a genuine interest in what the net could offer broadcasters.

Sadly, at the time, it was not very much at all, and our plans to work together did not progress.

He was elected in 1997 along with many other Labour candidates who had not really expected to make it into Parliament, and since then he has shown a continuing and sincere interest in computers and the internet.

As an MP he has been one of the people pushing the government to make better use of the net, and although he sometimes goes over the top, it is been good to have someone committed in the House of Commons making sure the issues do not go away.

Fighting porn

Derek's latest campaign is one I have a lot of sympathy with. He is fed up with the amount of pornographic e-mail that is sent to him and to the other members of his family.

Derek Wyatt
Wyatt: Campaign against spam
Porn has become one of the most common forms of spam - unwanted, unsolicited commercial e-mail sent in its millions to unsuspecting net users. And many parents are getting increasingly concerned that it is ending up in children's mailboxes.

One e-mail filtering company, Brightmail, found that one third of the spam they intercepted on one day in August was pornographic.

I will not let my daughter have a Hotmail account precisely because of this. She has a private e-mail address that has (so far) stayed off the spam lists, and a public address that actually comes to me so I can filter it for her.

It is good to see Mr Wyatt taking up this issue, but his proposed solution does not seem very workable. He wants to amend the Communications Bill to make internet service providers responsible for the content they send over their network.

This sounds appealing but ignores the practical reality that the network providers do not and should not read the content of the messages they send, just as the Royal Mail does not read our letters.

Global spam

The fact is that UK-based ISPs are not the source of the spam and not the people to look to for an effective solution.

Enough gullible Americans want to get rich quick or increase their sexual potency to make sending billions of e-mails a worthwhile business expense.

Most of the spam I get seems to come from outside this country, because it is very hard to create national borders on today's internet.

European legislation on commercial e-mail only applies to companies based in Europe who are concerned with operating legally and few of the serious spammers fall into this category.

In practice the people who are sending the spam have a real interest in getting around any legal or technical restrictions because, as I have pointed out before spam appears to work.

Enough gullible Americans want to get rich quick, lose weight or increase their sexual potency to make sending billions of e-mails a worthwhile business expense.

At least over here we are willing to think about using the law to solve the problem. Over in the United States there is still a widespread fear of any sort of legislation.

E-mail vigilantes

The sort of solutions the US favour are things like the Spamcop blacklist, where any computer that is accused of sending spam is blocked from any e-mail access in future by a consortium of ISPs.

Children using computers
Children could be exposed to porn e-mails
This sort of vigilante justice may appeal to those raised on the myth of the US Wild West but it is almost certainly illegal even under US law, breaks all the principles of natural justice and does not even seem to be working: the volume of spam is hardly decreasing, is it?

Other systems are more cooperative. After I wrote about spam, Russ Thomas sent me details of a program called SpamNet that works with the Outlook mail program.

SpamNet uses an online community that watches out for spam, so that when an unwanted e-mail appears in my Inbox I can mark it as spam and let the community know.

Once a certain number of notifications are received then everyone else gets sent the details of that message and it is blocked.

This works because spam is sent out to millions of people over a short period of time, and it does not give one person or system administrator the power to cancel other people's accounts or block their internet use.

Call for action

There is however something that could be done at a network level.

We could establish legal liability for leaving your network open to spammers

One of the key ways that spam gets into the system is through poorly configured networks. Companies allow their e-mail servers to be hijacked by the spammers.

Web servers are badly managed and let spammers use their facilities to spend fake e-mail.

Internet service providers do not manage their networks properly and allow spammers to pretend to be other people (this is called spoofing).

As an alternative to Derek Wyatt's approach, where ISPs are held liable for the content of messages, we could establish legal liability for leaving your network open to spammers.

This would mean that companies could be sued for damages by those who were deluged with unwanted email as a result of poor security.

If this were done then the incentive for every company with an internet connection to lock it down and make it safe would increase significantly.

This in turn would make it harder for spammers to hide their identity, so that ISPs could find them and kick them off their networks. Perhaps then the cost of sending spam would increase to the point where it simply stopped being worthwhile.

Can spam ever be beaten?

I opened a Hotmail account the other day and was immediately sent some spam inviting me to a three-day free trial. I innocently opened it not knowing what the contents would be. I was horrified to be offered a free trial of porn involving teenagers. The language used in the title implied serious sexual violence against young girls. This is paedophilia and should be stopped. It makes me very angry to think that this kind of spamming will continue because certain sick individuals are willing to pay for images of sexual abuse against teens.
Jo, UK

I must agree that I would love to see the removal of all spam e-mail. I hate it! I think though that there is very little we can do to rid ourselves of it. Much the same as junk mail comes through the post, e-mail is the best way to advertise your service. Its not just porn either. Financial services, viruses, fake diploma services, casino's all end up in my junk folder. All I want is a sensible filter that actually works so I can filter out the rubbish. If you do happen to click on something and open it there seems to be very few that have a "remove me from the mailing list" option. That should be part of all mail systems. Trouble is a decent standard of behaviour doesn't exist on the internet. Until it does we will see more spam blocking up the good works of intelegent, well meaning network providers. What a shame!
Dave, Kent, UK

The above proposals are good as far as they go, but spammers will still find their way around. It is very easy to set up e-mail accounts with AOL and so on, under a false name. All spammers need to do is to create an account, send out their messages and then close it. The damage is done and no return is possible. To comply with US law, US-based spammers add a link to a remove page, that never works, and you can't complain by replying to the original e-mail because the address is never found. Control needs to be exerted over the compilation of mailing lists. How you'd do that I really can't imagine. Is it possible?
Ian Pearse, England

I hate spam with a passion. I get up to 40 e-mails a days and approximately 20 will be spam, the time it takes to sort them is a nuisance as well as taking up precious bandwidth while downloading them (they usually containing some graphics or animation). I think penalties for sending spam should be very harsh indeed.
Sam, UK

Can't it be made illegal for ISPs to pass on an e-mail with a forged "from" address. That would eliminate 99% of the spam that I get.
Pete B, Thatcham, UK

I can't see any reason why SpamNet couldn't be applied on an ISP server level, with all spam messages being deleted on the server (or rejected) automatically.
Nathan Hobbs, Luton, UK

I look forward to the day when something is done to discourage those who send send out spam. In the interim, couldn't those who run web based e-mail services, such as hotmail, set up a system similar to SpamNet? Anything to reduce the spam I receive would be welcome.
Ian, England

I like the responsibility idea proposed here, but doubt it would work: most of the spam I receive comes from either companies in other countries (China and Singapore mainly) or through valid but shortlived Hotmail or Yahoo mail accounts.
Matthew, UK

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The Bill Thompson column is courtesy of BBC WebWise, part of BBC Education's ongoing campaign to teach people about the internet and how to use it. Bill is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
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