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Is AOL's Anti-Spam Campaign Working?

By Tiernan Ray
Apr 29, 2003 4:00 AM PT

Spammers, perhaps the most hated denizens of the Internet, are under siege as the U.S. Congress and courts step up the pressure to reduce junk e-mail volume. Private companies are taking action, too: On Monday, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo forged an alliance to fight spam.

Is AOL's Anti-Spam Campaign Working?

Moreover, AOL announced on April 15th that it was filing lawsuits against five individuals, accusing them of sending unsolicited e-mail pitches for products ranging from pornography to discounted software. The company claimed its action was motivated mainly by "over 8 million individual spam complaints from members."

In a political and corporate climate that is increasingly tough on spam, will AOL's new efforts work?

Although the recent moves signal a new level of potential legal consequences for senders of bulk e-mail, the nature of spam makes it unlikely that lawsuits alone will solve the problem. Pending litigation could help, but technology may yet be the solution to this persistent and costly dilemma.

Tender Sensibilities

The sheer volume of non-targeted e-mail is what prompted the latest anti-spam actions. IDC vice president Mark Levitt told the E-Commerce Times that 5.6 billion spam e-mails were sent worldwide on an average day in 2002. He said he expects this number to rise to 7.3 billion in 2003.

AOL claims to be coming to the rescue of its members' delicate sensibilities. The company's press release announcing the lawsuits cited the "offensive and unwanted" messages that AOL members face on a daily basis.

Roland Vogl, a trademark lawyer and director of the Law, Science & Technology Program at Stanford University, agrees that AOL has an immediate interest in protecting its brand. "AOL must protect the payers of their fees," he told the E-Commerce Times. "If there is another ISP that establishes itself as tough on spammers, AOL could lose customers."

Analysts say that if litigation can scare enough spammers into compliance, it can have an effect in the near term. "Just ratcheting up the [number of] cases could certainly make an impact. The effort needs to be extensive, and it needs to come from several firms," said Internet analyst Paul Ritter, who tracks the spam phenomenon for the Yankee Group. AOL claims previous suits already have had an impact, including a recent $6.9 million judgment.

Write Your Congressman

However, some say the real issue is less one of taste and more one of economics. Numerous parties are burdened by the increasing cost of accepting e-mail -- especially the Internet service providers that must devote valuable bandwidth to transporting the millions of messages that arrive daily. A recent study by Ferris Research claims that the cost to ISPs in terms of extra resources and lost productivity amounts to $10 billion per year.

Legislation has begun to target spam for these reasons in the last year. One bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Conrad Burns (R-Montana) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), highlights the cost to companies of processing unsolicited e-mail. The proposed bill (PDF version) mentions this threat to the Internet in its preamble, stating, "The receipt of unsolicited commercial electronic mail may result in costs to recipients who cannot refuse to accept such mail."

The bill threatens jail terms for individual spammers, but also calls for enforcement of civil penalties against companies and other institutions.

Return to Sender

Even if an anti-spam bill passes or AOL wins its lawsuits, it is safe to say that companies will spend more, not less, on fighting spam in the near future. After all, there is only so much litigation and legislation can accomplish when fighting a problem shaped by technology. Any individual can recognize spam, but blocking it has become a task for machines, which are better at keeping up with the sheer volume generated by computers on the originating side of the spam equation.

After all, the number of inappropriate product come-ons received by the average e-mail user suggests that spam is not only out of hand, but is operating on a fully automatic basis.

In a sign of the times, enterprise mail tools are becoming a focal point for spam-fighting efforts. For example, Microsoft is adding anti-spam capabilities to its forthcoming Exchange 2003 mail server software.

Brightmail, a vendor of anti-spam tools to corporations, uses a patented algorithm called "trigrams" to create a fingerprint of spam messages, which customers' computers then can use to filter out and block those messages on their networks. The fingerprint identifies tricks that spammers use to fool computer filters, such as empty markup tags in HTML e-mail. The company's software is used by some of the largest ISPs, including MSN and EarthLink, and CEO Enrique Salem claims it handled 55 billion messages in March.

Upping the Ante

The nature of the spam battle may be changing, however. New tools are bringing the battle to the parties that originate spam e-mail. One company, IronPort of San Bruno, California, sells a product called the A60 messaging gateway, a rack-mounted appliance that automates e-mail sales campaigns. IronPort claims the device helps marketing types to be "good neighbors" by providing controls that limit how much e-mail is sent to specific domains and how easily e-mail addresses can be removed from a mailing list.

As tools for sending e-mail get better, filtering software will have to respond to ensure that "good" marketers get through while spammers are turned away. Brightmail's Salem told the E-Commerce Times that in the next several months, his company will unveil agreements with service providers that will put new conditions on the way e-mail is sent by subscribers.

"We need to get the good senders to comply with authentication, and we need to enforce some method of accountability," he explained. "Then the bad guys can be weeded out."

The End Is Nigh

The e-mail arms race is heating up as white hats try to develop technology to outwit the black hats. Can these technologists do more than stem the tide, or is a cold war characterized by standoffs the best possible outcome?

IDC's Levitt said legislation and technology both will have a long-term, though measured, impact. "I believe spam volumes will slow over the next few years as responses to spam offers drop off and technology and laws make it more costly to send spam," he noted. The Yankee Group's Ritter was somewhat more specific, telling the E-Commerce Times that software can reduce spam by about 10 to 30 percent over the next several years.

Not surprisingly, Salem is convinced that Brightmail is developing the cure. "Changes in software and in arrangements with the largest ISPs will eliminate spam as a problem by 2006," he said.

Between lawsuits, litigation and technology, it seems even the most skeptical may have reason to hope that relief from unwanted e-mail is within reach.


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