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Sifting Through The Spam Solutions

It's official. Fighting the war on Spam is now big business. Anti-Spam and content filtering revenues alone are expected to total more than $653 million this year, according to a study by The Radicati Group Inc. It's also big politics. No less than 28 State Legislators have put their names on an anti-Spam Bill and the Federal level is just getting started. Stopping Spam in its tracks is the hottest issue to come along in many years and there are those that see it as their E ticket to profits or pulling away at the polls. It's a bit ironic isn't it? In order to stop the flood of Spam we must first wade through a flood of proposed solutions.

Spam Legislation

The FTC would have loved nothing more than industry self-regulation, but we are beyond that now. It should be noted that there are at least two inherent flaws in the belief that state and/or federal anti-Spam legislation can provide a solution to the Spam epidemic in the United States:

  • Much Spam originates from outside the United States
  • Legislators are making a major assumption about reputable e-mail marketers when they think they have the list member's postal information

However, let's put that aside for now and look at the major elements contained within the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-Spam) Act of 2003 and New York Senator Charles Schumer's recent proposal (the two that seem to have the most legs):

"ADV" subject line requirement (Shumer) - The ADV law has been popular at the state level for some time now. Yet most industry insiders, including anti-Spam advocates, agree that adding "ADV" to the beginning of a subject line has absolutely zero effect on Spam. Spammers may or may not include ADV, but reputable markers will be forced to, which makes all permission- based commercial correspondence "filter bait" at the very least. ADV laws are merely quick political plays for those politicians watching the Spam war from afar. On the other hand, the CAN-Spam Act does not require ADV but "clear and conspicuous identification" which goes further, without tying the creative hands of direct marketers.

Email Harvesting (Schumer) - Schumer should be commended for being one of the few in Washington to recognize how much of Spam is created. Email Harvesting, and all its related technology, should be outlawed - plain and simple.

National No-Spam list (Schumer) - Schumer wants to spend $75,000,000 to create and enforce such a national do-not-email list. The trouble is Spammers won't use it and reputable marketers must. Therefore, the permission that the reputable marker holds is meaningless until "cleared" with the Federal government. It will also increase campaign costs and turnaround time for the good guys. Score a big one for the Spammers here.

Sender Accountabilty (CAN-Spam/Schumer) - This is the best ingredient in both bills. We should all support anything that penalizes the sender for falsifying header information, deceiving the consumer and/or having a missing or inactive unsubscribe option.

Spam Technology

Here, too, exist a couple of flaws in assuming technology holds the key to stopping Spam:

  • Mass consensus is generally required among all ISPs, Email Service Providers and trade organizations for it to be truly effective
  • All technology is temporary

Nevertheless, tech solutions are gaining steam so let's review:

Spam Filters - At best, filters are imperfect tools and it's up to the user as to how much imperfection they are willing to live with. Until filters can block just those incoming e-mails that have fraudulent sender information and bad unsubscribe links, they are a small Band-Aid on a very large wound.

Certification - Certification services act as the middleman between e-mail vendors and ISPs by ensuring their client rosters are upholding certain standards. ISPs then let the mail containing the certificate through. Habeas and TrustE are the best known of such services and the DMA has hinted that they may be developing one as well. However, each are susceptible to the two inherent tech flaws mentioned above (consensus is critical). Further, some invade on the advertiser's "real estate" by placing banners at the top of the message. What's more is that certification services typically have to lower the bar to get consensus among the e-mail vendors rather than raise it.

Project Lumos - Project Lumos is the Network Advertising Initiative's (NAI) blueprint for a technical architecture to eradicate Spam by enforcing sender accountability. While its details are still being discussed, it has broad tentative support from most e-mail service providers and ISPs. As with any "technical architecture" initiative, the key question of course is how much will it cost?

So what are we left with? The Spam war now has another dimension - the opportunists. Luckily, there are far more people out there who sincerely wish to close the floodgates of unsolicited e-mail because it hurts legitimate businesses. The key to winning the war on Spam can be summed up by one word: transparency. Spam has prevailed because unscrupulous people have been able to hide behind their technology. Consumers can't unsubscribe and authorities can't track the senders down. To this end, the CAN-Spam Act is a strong start as it makes it a Federal crime to falsify and deceive via e-mail. Watch with interest as the details of Lumos get fleshed out. Technology that enforces accountability cannot be a bad thing.

Mind you, transparency is critical for all parties involved, which means those operating blacklists and ISPs as well. It's time for all parties to come out of the shadows. Those that don't should be penalized.

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