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It's Time to Can the Spam


Make Money Fast. Fire Your Boss. Hot XXX Teen Cuties. Find Out Anything About Anyone. Along with dubious stock tips and offers for Viagra online, these unsolicited and unwanted e-mail messages flood my in-box. And based on my experience and anecdotal reports, the problem is getting worse.

Spam, named for the venerable tinned meat product, is part of the dark side of the Internet revolution. Nettlesome junk postal mail is restrained by the expense of sending it. Telemarketing calls, which are even more annoying, are expensive, too. But e-mail spam is virtually free of cost to the sender, so there is little to keep it from growing.

There's not much that individuals can do to limit the junk. Spammers rarely honor the offers they provide to take recipients off lists, and unlike postal mail, there is no legal requirement for them to do so. Mail programs, including Microsoft Outlook (MSFT), AOL (AOL), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Hotmail, offer not-very-effective tools to deal with junk mail. The spammers always stay one step ahead of the tricks the programs use to identify junk. As a result, automatic filters tend either to misidentify spam as legitimate mail or, worse, brand real mail as junk.

OPEN-ACCESS ABUSE. There are, however, steps that the Internet community could take, both on its own and in conjunction with governments, to control the problem. One simple measure is fixing a flaw in the design of the Internet. The Net was designed as a friendly, cooperative tool for academics, and it was set up so that if a University of California at Los Angeles mail server was down, a researcher there could send messages through a server at Stanford University. Today, such "open relays" make it easy for spammers to disguise the source of their mail and avoid being nailed for abuse of accounts by their own Internet service providers.

A sort of Net vigilantism is gradually shutting down relays. Organizations such as the Mail Abuse Prevention System (www.mail-abuse.org) and the Open Relay Behavior-Modification System (www.orbs.org) publish lists of servers used as relays by spammers. Subscribers refuse to accept any mail coming from the listed servers. Since this stops legitimate mail as well as spam, any ISP that ends up on the list comes under intense pressure from unhappy customers and will block the offender. It's rough justice, but it works. If every ISP, school, or business that runs a mail server would honor the blacklists, the problem of spam would be much reduced.

Other approaches require government intervention. In the U.S., it is illegal to send an unsolicited ad by fax. What puts some teeth in this prohibition is a requirement that every fax carry a legitimate phone number from which it originated, creating easy grounds for action against violators. Similarly, every piece of e-mail should be required to carry a valid return address instead of the bogus addresses spammers use. This won't stop spam, but it could drastically reduce it, as it has junk faxes.

Success will require international action. Increasingly, the spam I see appears to originate overseas, especially in Eastern Europe, though most of the goods and services being offered are American. Spammers may be using open relays abroad, foreign ISP accounts, or just fake foreign addresses, but the problem is clearly international and may have to involve bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union.

A final area for action is plain old law enforcement. Many of the services advertised are obviously illegal. You don't get stuff like this in your mailbox because postal inspectors enforce mail-fraud laws. Wire fraud is just as illegal, but there's no law-enforcement agency interested in fighting illegal spam. We need one.

Spam is more than a nuisance. The volume clogs mail servers and fills inboxes with junk. And the slimy nature of most of these mailings is a threat to legitimate e-commerce. It's time to end the spammers' free ride. By Stephen H. Wildstrom, tech&you@businessweek.com


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