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Cloudmark Software Lets Users Decide What's Spam

It's designed to differentiate junk E-mail from bulk E-mail sent by legitimate businesses.
Cloudmark Inc. on Thursday launched software designed to differentiate trashy E-mail sent by spammers from bulk E-mail sent by legitimate businesses, which lose billions of dollars a year from undelivered messages.

The startup is offering an alternative to the spam filters used by Internet service providers that often kill newsletters, product notices requested by consumers, and other legitimate commercial E-mails.

So-called "false positives" are expected to cost companies $3.5 billion this year in lost business, according to Ferris Research. Lost productivity, bandwidth usage, and other problems caused by spam itself cost nearly $10 billion annually, the market-research firm says.

Cloudmark Rating is a new module to the company's SpamNet software, which lets users determine whether an E-mail sender is a spammer or Amazon.com trying to sell a book from a customer's favorite author.

SpamNet is installed as an add-on to Microsoft Outlook 2000 or later version of the E-mail client. The spam blocker takes a "fingerprint," or 24-character representation of the E-mail, and sends it to the Cloudmark server, which checks whether the sender has a high probability of being a spammer. If it does, then the message is dropped in a folder SpamNet creates in Outlook.

If a user indicates a message in the folder is legitimate, then that information is sent back to the SpamNet server. If enough users mark the message as legitimate, then it's no longer listed as spam.

Cloudmark uses proprietary algorithms against this message traffic among its 600,000 current registered users in separating legitimate E-mail from spam. Cloudmark Rating takes the process a step further in that businesses can register online with the company, so their E-mail arrives in users' in-boxes.

The new module, which is installed with SpamNet, places a "block" button in the Outlook toolbar, so a person who doesn't want the message can unsubscribe by simply clicking on the button.

Because Cloudmark doesn't verify that registered senders are whom they claim, critics have questioned Rating's effectiveness. However, Karl Jacob, chief executive of Cloudmark, says spammers disguised as legitimate businesses will be found out soon enough through user response.

"The key to the system is that identity is tied to reputation," Jacob said. "Trust is based on reputation, which is how it works in the real world."

Trust is good, but Eric Hemmendinger, an analyst at market researcher Aberdeen Group, said the software is going to have to work effectively to attract a large number of users. "Consumers are going to have to see that a little bit of effort brings a huge return in the context of spam reduction," Hemmendinger said.

In addition, the software will have to work with the more widely used Outlook Express, Hemmendinger said. That support is coming some, according to Cloudmark.

John Mozena, spokesman for the non-profit Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, said Cloudmark's effectiveness will depend on whether it gets enough users to make an effective rating system.

"The concept of using a peer-to-peer network as a foundation for a distributed spam filter is interesting," Mozena said. Cloudmark "didn't invent the concept, but they are one of the more prominent organizations trying to make a go of it."

Nevertheless, the coalition still supports government regulation, as well as technology, to rid the Internet of spam. Proposed federal legislation supported by the group would let people enter a "do-not-spam" registry similar to the "do-not-call" registry launched this year by the Federal Communications Commission.

SpamNet is sold on a subscription basis of $3.99 a month. The Rating program is available for free to major Internet service providers and Web-based E-mail providers, but, no deals have been reached.