Internet Task Force Nixes Microsoft Sender ID Approach

A plan to employ Microsoft technology as a standard for identification of e-mail senders to help curb spam has been rejected by a key Internet technical group because of concerns the software giant might seek to enforce its patent rights in the future.

A subgroup of the Internet Engineering Task Force has come to the conclusion that Microsoft’s desire to retain the intellectual property rights to the solution, known as Sender ID, makes it less suitable as a standard.

“The working group has at least rough consensus that the patent claims should not be ignored,” Andrew Newton, cochair of the task force, said in an e-mail to IETF members. “The objection is based on questions of deployment caused by incompatibilities with open-source licenses.”

Concern About License Fees

Newton said the group, which includes many open-source adherents, also had some members who reported no problems with deploying the Microsoft-backed solution in conjunction with open-source platforms.

The working group tried to forge a compromise that separated two technical standards — Sender ID and Purported Responsible Address (PRA) — for identifying e-mail origins. Such a scheme would allow both a Microsoft-licensed version of the technology combining both standards and an open-source alternative that used only the core Sender ID algorithms.

But Newton indicated that there was concern that Microsoft would pursue license fees in either scenario, leaving the group no choice but to scrap the draft it had hoped to send to the full task force for review this month.

Ironically, some analysts say the Sender ID technology is the best currently available to help filter spam and is far superior to existing filter formats that focus on the content of a message, which spammers have already found ways to work around.

Open-Source Worries

A Microsoft spokesperson issued a statement saying the company will continue to develop solutions for Sender ID because its customers are calling for it.

“There’s broad support for Sender ID technology and we encourage others to support and implement this technology so that together we can do more to tackle spam,” the statement said.

Indeed, Microsoft’s approach has the support of a roster of key industry players, including some of the largest Internet service providers — America Online among them — and many large telecommunications companies.

Not surprisingly, the open-source community played a role in scuttling the Microsoft plan. Within the past two weeks, both the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) and open-source development group Debian withdrew their support for Sender ID.

Powerful Tool

Microsoft has portrayed itself as an antispam crusader for some time, joining forces with law enforcement and filing civil lawsuits to flush out those responsible for sending millions of unwanted messages. It has made technological solutions another key piece of its antispam effort.

Forrester research analyst Jonathan Penn said that even if competing standards emerge, the rise of more advanced e-mail validation technology will likely be one of the most powerful tools against spam. Penn said 2005 will see the start of widespread adoption of such measures.

While law enforcement efforts, bonded white lists and other tactics have done little by most accounts to stem the flow of spam, emerging technologies are more promising. “E-mail validation will not eliminate spam, but it will radically alter the battlefield in the war against it,” Penn said.

Patent Push

Although Microsoft has expressed a willingness to work with the open-source community to develop a standard for e-mail identification, it also has made it clear that it believes its intellectual property rights might be its most powerful asset going forward.

Chairman Bill Gates said earlier this year that Microsoft plans to increase its patent filings dramatically, possibly by enough to make it the largest patent seeker in the United States, a title currently held by IBM.

Townsend & Townsend patent attorney Tom Franklin said that one way Microsoft might be recognizing the opportunity to be a dominant player without reviving antitrust concerns is by licensing its intellectual property vigorously.

“It’s a path that other companies have had success with and it seems to be the way Microsoft sees itself evolving in the post-antitrust world,” Franklin told the E-Commerce Times.

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