Spam crackdown gaining momentum
By Jean Latz Griffin
Contributing Writer
From the

When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce met in Washington, D.C., last month with dozens of lobbyists from telecommunications companies, their mission was clear–find effective ways to block spam. Unsolicited e-mail, once considered merely annoying, has grown to the point where it is seriously harming business productivity. Employees must spend time sorting through useless emails and Internet resources are diverted from legitimate tasks. But if the goal is straightforward, the best way to achieve it is not.

Some anti-spam groups and consumer advocates think the answer is more government regulation, possibly something similar to the 1991 federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which prohibited prerecorded telemarketing calls and junk faxes. Several bills are moving through Congress and 25 states, including Illinois, have anti-spam laws.

Others, however, including major corporations and business groups, are lobbying against more governmental regulation because they fear that if anti-spam nets are cast too widely they will unfairly restrict e-mail marketing.

“Absolutely, government regulation could have an adverse effect on legitimate electronic marketing,” said Alex Bratton, CEO of The Net Squad. “Until we nail down a good definition of spam, any regulation may unfairly block a lot of wanted email.”

Bratton’s Oak Brook-based firm writes software to enhance the abilities of a company’s existing IT systems. One of its products, Email Rx, blocks spam.

In July, more than one-third of the 7.3 billion email messages sent daily were spam, according to Brightmail, an anti-spam service provider. If the current trend continues, spam will make up half of all e-mails by the end of the year, according to an informal survey of Internet service providers by CNET, an online technology news service.

“Within a year, it will be a requirement to have some sort of spam filter on your email,” Bratton said. “It has already hit epidemic proportions and it is just going to grow. There is too much garbage out there.”

One way spammers operate is to send millions of emails to addresses with all likely combinations of letters and numbers. Like bank robbers, they go where the money is, so they target members of large Internet Service Providers, such as AOL or Earthlink, or companies that have their own domain name and more than 10,000 employees.

Of 100 million possible e-mail addresses, only 10 million may be real, but e-mail is so cheap that it is still cost effective. And, if the recipient clicks on the “unsubscribe” button, the spammer knows he or she has found a real e-mail address and sends more e-mail.

In September, the Telecommunications Research and Action Center and other consumer groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to ban e-mail that uses a phony subject line or misrepresents the sender to hide the fact that it is an advertisement.

That would be similar to Illinois’ Electronic Mail Act, in effect since January, 2000, which bans unsolicited email that uses a third party’s Internet domain name without permission, misrepresents the source of the e-mail, or contains false or misleading information in the subject line.

However, even if stronger state laws or any federal law were enacted to regulate spam–and passed Constitutional muster on First Amendment Freedom of Speech issues–enforcement is a problem. U.S. anti-crime resources are already stretched thin fighting terrorism, drugs and corporate fraud and much of the spam comes from outside the country.

“When individuals or Internet Service Providers can take spammers to court and win, or when the technology gets to the point that nobody is even seeing spam any more, that’s when we’ll see some real progress,” Bratton said. “At this point, technology is winning.”

Experts say that the answer will probably come from a combination of government regulation of obvious abuses, such as pornography or fraud, technological advancements and human oversight.

“Spam requires a technology solution because it is a technology problem,” Ken Schneider, chief technology officer at Brightmail told The New York Times in June.

Many Web-hosting companies and Internet Service Providers offer their clients filters that stop spam before it gets to their mailbox. However, the filters sometimes stop legitimate mail, such as non-commercial mail sent to mailing lists or mail innocently typed in all capital letters.

One solution is to use a scoring systems. For example, The Net Squad’s Email Rx program gives a point to each indication that an email message may be spam–the message line in all caps, certain keywords, a place to click to unsubscribe. When a message reaches a certain number of points, it is considered spam and rejected.

A new method under development would look at all the legitimate e-mail a person receives and determine what is spam for that person by figuring the ratio of certain words.

“A physician, for example, would probably receive a lot of legitimate mail with the names of certain body parts,” Bratton said. “But those words in a non-medical person’s e-mail could be an indication of spam.”