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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Microsoft sets sights on spam
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

There is going to be much more spam around over the coming months and years.

Spam in e-mail inbox, BBC
Spam is easy to spot
So says George Webb, Microsoft's man in charge of the software giant's anti-spam strategy.

But the good news is that although more junk mail will be sent, those that take steps to protect themselves are going to get a lot less of it landing in their inbox.

The reason that less spam will reach users, he believes, is because the computer industry has finally started working together to tackle the problem.

"One company alone cannot solve this," he said.

Industrial action

One of the first results of this co-operation is the decision to unite formerly competing proposals to stop spam.

Microsoft, along with Amazon and anti-spam firm Brightmail, had backed an idea dubbed Caller-ID for e-mail.

This involved checking whether e-mail arrived from where it said it did. It was intended to combat spam that spoofs its originating address.

TYPES OF SPAM
Dubious products - 9%
Graphical porn - 7.5%
Other spam - 7.5%
Newsletters - 6%
Scams - 7%
Travel/gambling/games - 3%
Financial - 13%
Herbal/drugs/vitamins - 10%
Insurance - 4%
Non-graphic porn - 33%
The competing proposal was called the Sender Policy Framework, which was backed by AOL, Yahoo, BT and others, also tried to spot forged addresses.

Now the two have been brought together into one proposal called Sender ID.

"We are right now finishing up converging the specifications and that will be submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force once it is complete," said Mr Webb.

The IETF has the job of improving and changing the net's core architecture.

The alliance is significant because of Microsoft's former dogged insistence on championing its own technology at the expense of others.

"We need to take action as an industry because before now there's been a lot of talk," said Mr Webb told BBC News Online. "Once you get consensus you want it rapidly adopted."

Microsoft is also looking at ways to separate spam from legitimate marketing e-mail that people are happy to receive.

Mr Webb said Microsoft is also behind the idea of "bonded senders" which involves bulk mail firms lodging a cash sum as a guarantee that their e-mail is legitimate.

Charges are made against the bond if complaints are made about e-mail a company is sending.

Mr Webb said cash bonds and other reputation servers will help filtering systems sort the good from bad e-mail.

"That's one of the key shortcomings of the model at the moment," said Mr Webb, "filtering just treats every e-mail equally and that's a problem that needs to be solved."

Technical tricks

For people who send only a few e-mail messages per day Microsoft is also working on a way to force sending machines to carry out a short computational task every time they despatch a message.

E-mail graphic, Eyewire
Spam is stopping people using e-mail
The task, which would take about 30 seconds to perform, would only inconvenience those sending thousands of messages from a desktop PC.

"It's a pretty elegant idea and we are working on ways now to put this in products," said Mr Webb.

Microsoft is also putting anti-spam filters in its Outlook e-mail program, Exchange e-mail server system and software for the MSN web service.

But, said Mr Webb, technology alone would not stop spam.

Microsoft had 14 lawyers filing lawsuits against unrepentant spammers and currently, said Mr Webb, it had 90 cases under way and more would follow.

Net service firms also had to take action against PCs on their networks that have been compromised and are acting as spam-spewing relays.

He said that governments also had to frame laws to outlaw unsolicited e-mail and more had to be done to educate users about spam and what they can do to tackle it.

"People say that they were using e-mail less because of spam and they are extremely annoyed by it," said Mr Webb.

But, he added, users do have to bear some of the blame.

"They have also bought more spam-related goods than you would think," he said.

Mr Webb said that only progress on a lot of fronts will make spammers stop.

"The problem is this is a good business to be in today," he said "that's the core challenge we face."


SEE ALSO:
Spam messages on the increase
25 May 04  |  Technology
Spammers and virus writers unite
30 Apr 03  |  Technology
Spammer's Porsche up for grabs
30 Mar 04  |  Business
Rise of the spambusters
15 Mar 04  |  Business
United front against spam urged
08 Jun 04  |  Technology
How not to win a million
22 Jun 04  |  Business


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