Secret CIO: Who Should Lead The Fight Against Spam? - InformationWeek
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Secret CIO: Who Should Lead The Fight Against Spam?

To defeat spam, we must first agree on who owns the problem

Spam is a plague on everyone who depends on E-mail. So far, we don't have a real solution to this curse, although drawing and quartering offenders might receive a majority vote of frustrated computer users. Part of the problem is that there isn't a uniform definition of spam. What we call spam runs the gamut from the most odious pornography to unwanted missives from legitimate businesses. Therein lies a major difficulty. The fact is, the less precise the definition of something, the more difficult it is to manage. To solve a problem, there must first be concurrence on what the problem is and who's responsible for its solution.

Probably the only commonly accepted definition of spam we ever can agree on is that it's unwanted E-mail that refuses to go away. Whether we're getting ads guaranteeing the enhancement of gender-specific body parts or offers of money for helping to move millions of dollars from Nigeria, you and I want the ability to eliminate junk E-mail.

Who's responsible for stopping the scourge of spam? Is it Internet service providers, Microsoft, independent software vendors, the technology-standards community, legislators, or all of the above? While these people can help, the simple logic of Occam's Razor dictates that because E-mail users are most bothered by spam, it's up to us to be activists in seeking a solution. We own the problem. The question is what power do we have, and how do we exercise it, in solving the spam epidemic?

Up front, it's clear there's no simple answer. What works to modify the behavior of an established company isn't going to affect slime merchants. We have national legislation, Can-Spam, designed to eliminate unwanted messages. However, opt-out lists won't have the desired impact. Many spammers use servers that are outside the United States and hide behind spoofed E-mail return addresses.

One suggestion is to charge for E-mail messages, either in cash or computer cycles. The trick, of course, is to set the price high enough to put a dent in the trash traffic without driving up the cost to the rest of us, who have gotten hooked on Internet communication. Call it my basic distrust of corporate altruism, but I question whether such a solution will be in my best interest. It's the same reaction I have when my cable company tells me I'll get more channels (Stamp Collecting 24/7, Bobsledding Life, and Cooking With Broccoli) for a small (always upward) adjustment in my bill.

At this point, the mechanics of how charging for E-mail would work are fuzzy. Who gets the money? Does it require an operating-system upgrade (rarely free)? Would it mean tracking of all E-mail? Who does the monitoring and how? Alas, the complications are worthy of the most convoluted congressional debate. Not a pretty sight.

The spam problem ultimately will be solved by a combination of sound legislation, technical refinements to eliminate spoofing, and good old free enterprise. Software vendors and ISPs who come up with the best spam blockers will make a lot of money. We can speed up that day if we maintain our vocal outrage and never, ever respond to the junk that we get. Remember, every dollar that goes to spammers encourages them to continue to abuse us with their garbage.

Herbert W. Lovelace shares his experiences (changing most names, including his own, to protect the guilty) as CIO of a multibillion-dollar international company. Send him E-mail at

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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