Unsolicited e-mails bring a range of curious offers
Unwanted e-mails, or spam, are costing billions of dollars in lost productivity. Now, there's a serious effort to stamp it out.
While it's long been acknowledged that spam is annoying and costly, a solution to the problem could be as little as two years away.
This optimistic estimate was bandied about during the first meeting of the Anti-Spam Research Group, which met last week in San Francisco.
Sceptics will raise their eyes to the heavens. After all, efforts to tackle spam are nothing new. But this group has teeth.
Because the group has been set up under the auspices of the Internet Research Task Force, which in turn is affiliated to the Internet Engineering Task Force, its findings could ultimately have a major impact on e-mail technology.
Settling on a definition
The IETF has traditionally been responsible for standardising basic net technologies such as e-mail, data transfer protocols and internet addresses. In short, the IETF is regarded as the master of the internet.
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"Spam is a major problem today for the internet and society. Due to the growth of spam we fear it will affect the way people will use e-mail and the global structure of the internet," says Paul Judge, who chairs the new Anti-Spam think tank.
The first meeting of the group was a collection of alpha geeks made up of engineers, scientists, software programmers, spam filtering companies and e-mail marketers. No one admitted to being public enemy number one - a spammer.
One of the organisation's first tasks was to define what spam is - easier said than done given that one person's spam can be another's cherished job opportunity.
There was however, broad agreement on Paul Judge's description: "Spam is a problem of unwanted messages and we believe that you as an individual or organisation should be able to decide the messages that you want and the messages that you don't want."
As to the scale of the problem, there are reams of reports with figures to shock.
Paul Judge: "It's costing billions of dollars"
"Fifty per cent of all e-mail is spam. It's costing an estimated eight to nine billion dollars in lost productivity in America alone," says Steve Atkins of Spamcon.org.
"Worldwide, 628 million users find spam annoying and today people are getting 200 pieces of spam a day."
Legitimate marketers who use e-mail to sell products say spammers are discrediting their business.
Hans Peter Brondmo works for Digital Impact, an online direct marketing business that represents 30 companies that in turn delivers mail on behalf of about 200,000 organisations.
He is also part of the newly formed Email Service Provider Coalition, set up to help find answers to a problem threatening the industry.
"It is our view that you have to change the architecture, the way the internet works by introducing authentication standards so you can have a trusted relationship between a sender and receiver," says Mr Brondmo.
I think if you look in a mailbox in two years, spam will be more or less gone
This accountability would make life hard for spammers, who tend to survive using deception.
"If we have appropriate industry focus, I think if you look in a mailbox in two years, spam will be more or less gone."
Other possible answers floated at this first face-to-face workshop included making it harder or impossible to use a false return address on e-mail, as many spammers like to do, as well as charging postage of a quarter of a cent for sending messages so spammers cannot afford the cost of sending millions of junk e-mails a day.
Paul Judge says the way forward will require a combination of approaches, from accountability and authentication to legal and technical adjustments.
While many experts believe to halt spam cold would require a radical technical solution at the heart of the internet, Mr Judge is wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater by completely overhauling Simple Mail Transfer Protocol or SMTP that processes all e-mail.
Is there any escape from the spam onslaught?
"The goal is to try and provide a solution that is timeless. We are not suggesting we throw away SMTP and start over. Our desire is to promote and suggest solutions that are complementary and that have a chance for short-term and widespread deployment.
"Radical changes take a while to deploy and we have to find ways forward without jumping straight for drastic means."
As chair of this newly formed body, Mr Judge says he's confident the group can reach consensus in a timely fashion.
If it doesn't perhaps the American government will provide some impetus when the Federal Trades Commission meets to discuss the issue next month.
Some of your comments so far:
The only way this will be cured is to inflict punative measures onto the spammers and those who use spammers, including compensation for victims, fines and jail. I can get more than 30 spams a day, and sometimes delete legitimate mail as it all blurs into one big spam-fest. I'm sick of it.
John Ellis, UK
If I were to print out the title line of some of my e-mails and put it through next door's letterbox, hold it up at my window or say it out loud in the street I should be arrested immediately.
Some kind of digital ID is really the only way forward. Unless a sender is prepared unequivocally to identify themselves then their mail may (at the recipient's choice) automatically be deleted. This requires no "new" technology, and dovetails neatly with moves to make online commerce etc more secure.
If spam is to be eliminated, then what are people going to do when they're in need of debt consolidation services, university diplomas, free access to adult websites or Russian mail order brides?
John Delaney, France
Never ever reply to spam or even request them to take you off their mailing list - the floodgates will open as they will know that there is a human being on the end. I have learnt this lesson the hard way.
Oink, Oink, Oink. The pig is fuelled, it's lining up on the runway. That one is ready to fly. This will never work. You can't get 100s of millions of users to change their operating system and e-mail client in two years. I'm not going to shift to a new e-mail system that costs me money to send an e-mail.
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