Can Spam Be Stopped? - Page 1

Mar 8, 2002

Zachary Rodgers

It's been nearly a decade since spammers and their enemies began evolving competitively. As with the classic cheetah/gazelle model originally formulated by Darwin, each time one group becomes a little faster or more agile, its adversaries develop traits for outwitting and outrunning it.

Only, in the spam wars, the anti-spam gazelles have a little problem: the cheetahs seem to be winning.

The number of unsolicted commercial electronic messages received by the average American in 2001 was 571, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. By 2006, Jupiter says, that number will increase to 1,400, with more than 206 billion spam messages going out over the course of the year. While these numbers are notoriously difficult to calculate, every survey and ISP record points to dramatic increases in spam, sometimes as much as 300 percent year over year.

The issue of of great interest and frustration to enterprise IT execs, who are finding that the need to solve the spam problem has never been more critical - and it promises to become more of a problem. Spam leads to multiple costs for the enterprise, using up valuable bandwidth resources, jamming e-mail servers, and lowering employee productivity. There is good news: There are many efforts underway to eradicate spam.

The Spam Resistance

One reliable indicator of the problem's magnitude is the size of the anti-spam effort. The range of tools available to ISPs, enterprises and consumers in the fight against spam grew considerably during the Web bubble.

"There are a huge number of individual projects," according to Tom Geller, executive director of advocacy group SpamCon Foundation. "Some of them are technical, some are complaint focused, some are running statistics."

The list includes reporting tools; complaint generators; block-lists like, Spam Prevention Early Warning System (SPEWS) and Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS); advocacy and legal support groups; information services like the Register of Known Spam Operators (ROKSO); and filters of all kinds. If you want to get a sense of the scale of the anti-spam community, just spend a few minutes browsing the posts on It's truly staggering.

A Play for Self-Regulation

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Simultaneously, heavyweight Web marketers and interactive ad players have been scrambling to distinguish their services from the bad guys, as well as to counteract growing calls for government controls on digital marketing.

In one of the biggest such moves, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), through its subsidiary, the Association of Interactive Marketing (AIM), has released online commercial solicitation guidelines in an effort "to promote high ethical standards among marketers." The rules require that members let e-mail recipients know how they can refuse future mailings and allow consumers to prevent the sale or rental of their addresses.

"The guidelines demonstrate that industry self-regulation is working," said DMA president and chief executive H. Robert Wientzen. "The guidelines are fair to consumers and marketers alike." (Contrary to Wientzen's remark, it's not clear that self regulation is what all members of the DMA want, a point we'll examine later.)

The DMA rules require that members give opt-out information for sold, rented or exchanged consumer information. Additionally, every e-mail must reveal the marketer's identity, and the subject line must be "clear, honest, and not misleading." Marketers must also offer a detailed disclosure of each sender's use of customer info, offline contact information, and a statement of adherence to the standards.

ISPs, for their part, are feeling real pressure from network administrators and their customers to block spammers from their e-mail servers -- pressure that goes beyond the typical complaint and reporting methods. Many spam-supporting ISPs are even finding themselves on the receiving end of denial-of-service attacks.

Still Not Enough

All of this is insufficient for the gazelle to protect itself, however.

"Technical approaches are unlikely ever to eradicate spam," according to David Sorkin, associate professor of law at the the John Marshall Law School. "(This is) partly because of the time and resources that spammers devote to their activities and partly because of the inherent openness of the Internet and e-mail protocols. "

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