Gates: I'm A Spam-Fightin' Man

The Microsoft chairman says his company has made battling unsolicited E-mail a top priority.
Microsoft has made spam-fighting a top priority chairman Bill Gates said in a bulk E-mail to 75,000 customers.

"Like almost everyone, I receive a lot of spam every day, much of it offering to help me get out of debt or get rich quick. It's ridiculous," Gates said in the E-mail, which went out Tuesday to a mailing list of customers who, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman, had specifically asked to be put on Microsoft's executive E-mail mailing list.

Gates outlined measures that Microsoft is taking to stifle spam. The company filed 15 lawsuits against spammers on June 16.

Among the more controversial positions taken by Microsoft is its backing for legislation that it says would protect legitimate mail.

"What would help are guidelines defining, for example, whether and when an E-mail is legitimate based on a previous business relationship between the sender and recipient," Gates said. "By drawing a clear line between spam and legitimate mail, guidelines would enable spam filters to work more precisely, and make it easier for honest businesses to stay on the right side of the line."

Microsoft favors setting up "independent e-mail trust authorities to establish and maintain commercial email guidelines, certify senders who follow the guidelines, and resolve customer disputes." These would be similar to privacy authorities such as TRUSTe and BBBOnline.

The self-regulation would be combined with federal legislation to create a regulatory "safe harbor" for senders who comply with guidelines, approved by the Federal Trade Commission and confirmed by a self-regulatory body. "Senders who do not comply would have to insert an 'ADV:' label, for advertisement, in the subject line of all unsolicited commercial E-mail," Gates said. "Computer users could then customize their spam filters to either accept 'ADV:'"-labeled mail or automatically delete it."

Anti-spam advocates say what Microsoft is really seeking is to allow legitimate businesses, such as Microsoft itself, to spam customers, while clearing the field of the current lot of sleazy businesses. Some E-mail administrators say that measures such as the one Gates supports don't go far enough, because they don't address the sheer volume of spam that e-mail systems are forced to manage. Even if a message has "ADV:" in its subject line, it still needs to be processed by a mail server, if only to reject it, and that increases network overhead and cost.

The company is working on new spam filters, which have become available in products including MSN, Hotmail, Exchange and Outlook. Microsoft also recently created an Anti-Spam Technology and Strategy Group to address the problem, Gates said. Exchange 2003 incorporates anti-spam technology and APIs for third parties to integrate their own anti-spam software.

The company is working on technology at Microsoft Research to develop systems that can learn to identify spam, adapting to user preferences and new spammers' techniques, Gates said.

"As we develop new technologies," Gates said, "stemming the tide of spam also requires a multi-faceted approach that includes industry self-regulation, effective and appropriate legislation, and targeted enforcement against the most egregious spammers."

He added, "It also calls for cooperation among the major players in the email ecosystem. In April, we joined with AOL and Yahoo! in announcing a wide-ranging set of initiatives to fight spam together. Since then, Earthlink and others have joined the effort, which involves promoting business guidelines, best practices and technical standards that can help curb spam sent or received via any online service or computing platform."

The company supports legislation to curb fraud, E-mail address harvesting and other problems and techniques associated with spam.