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6/26/2003
03:52 PM
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Secret CIO: A Modest Proposal To Defeat Spam

I hate spam--the E-mail kind, that is. It's a bit irrational, I suppose. After all, I don't freak out when I go to the mailbox on Saturday mornings and see a lot of junk mail. It's just that my personal computer is, well, personal. Besides, I'm not really interested in learning about ways to enhance gender-specific body parts when I'm simply trying to get through my electronic correspondence.

The plague of spam has gotten so bad that I'm told it will be more than 60% of E-mail traffic this year. I don't know whether that number is right--I haven't a clue as to how it was estimated--but I do know that spam constitutes the majority of the E-mail I receive at home. It's a major problem. It takes up bandwidth and is annoying. I travel a lot, and when I'm in a hotel that doesn't have a high-speed connection, I get really frustrated with the time it takes to download and delete it. Besides, some of it is incredibly disgusting and offensive. Collectively, this electronic equivalent of the kudzu vine has to be made less pervasive so that the value of E-mail isn't diminished. It's about time that we slam the spam.

Lots of solutions have been proposed. Many of the technical ones rely on white lists, blacklists, filtering algorithms, and all sorts of clever ideas that sound exciting. They're effective to varying degrees, but all seem to share two difficulties. The first is the immutable fact that inevitably just as soon as someone comes up with a perfect technical solution to a problem, someone else figures out a way around it. Remember the digital protection scheme on DVDs that could be foiled with a felt-tip marker? The second problem with technical solutions is that they aren't exactly nonintrusive. There I am worrying about whether I'm blocking something that I really should get, so I waste time looking at the "spam" folder. Conversely, when I see something that should have been blocked and wasn't, I expend time manually updating my rules list. I might as well just use a preview pane on my mail program and cultivate the fastest delete-key finger in the neighborhood.

Some people advocate that there should be a small charge to send E-mails, knowing that spammers will lose the economic incentive to generate millions of messages a day. I'm not big on this idea because it changes the nature of E-mail communication to volume-based usage, something not very popular with those of us who subscribe to cable TV, high-speed Internet, and unlimited minutes on our telephones. Even if each ISP were to let me send a certain number of messages a month for free, I have a feeling it would take about two weeks for the bad guys to figure out a way around it.

Making it illegal to send spam is appealing but difficult. How do you find spammers when return addresses can be spoofed? What do you do about spam that originates from overseas? And, exactly what correspondence qualifies as spam?

Even though designing the legislation won't be easy, it would delightful to be able to forward a message to a government agency, declaring it to be spam. If enough people agree by sending messages from the same advertiser, it would be anointed as spam by popular acclamation and the government gets to go after the advertiser as well the agent sending it. Fines and freezing payments to them won't eliminate spam, but it should put a meaningful dent in the problem.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Herbert Lovelace's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Herbert Lovelace, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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