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Junk E-mail and Spam Wars

June 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: You open your computer inbox, and there it is: A sea of unsolicited, unwanted junk e-mail — or as it is commonly known, “spam,” the bane of the Internet.

The spam problem and what to do about it is the talk around water coolers, at Federal Trade Commission conferences, in legislatures, and, lately, prosecutor’s offices.

JAMES GLEICK: It is an epidemic, and however much spam you get now, in two weeks, you are going to get much more.

TERENCE SMITH: Science writer James Gleick is author of What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier.

He says, so far, the war on spam is being won by the spammers.

JAMES GLEICK: The spammers have become experts in the guerrilla tactic of trying to disguise their mail as something else. There are all kinds of subject lines, like, “how are ya?” or “here’s the credit report you asked for.”

TERENCE SMITH: Even the sender’s name is disguised.

JAMES GLEICK: There’s Buffy, there’s Melissa, there’s a lot of mail from self-described teenaged girls, who I assume are just fat, dirty, old men sending pictures of teenaged girls.

And I feel bad for people who are actually named Buffy, because they are probably being filtered out by a lot of corporate spam filters now. (Laughter)

TERENCE SMITH: Indeed they are.

TERENCE SMITH: By some industry estimates, nearly half of all the e-mail currently on the Internet is spam.

That junk e-mail will cost U.S. businesses some $10 billion this year in lost resources and productivity.

Some Internet service providers, like the world’s largest, America Online, say they have no choice but to band together to battle the problem.

TED LEONSIS, America Online: The gloves are off now. You know, we are going to fight these guys every which way we can.

TERENCE SMITH: Ted Leonsis is vice chairman and president of the AOL service. ‘The spammers are everywhere,’ he says, even in his inbox.

AOL STAFFER: “Build your own casino and sports book in ten minutes…”

TED LEONSIS: That’s all it takes, right? (Laughter)

TED LEONSIS: The way it is right now, anybody can go out and buy a computer, buy some network cards, get into the business, shut down, run across the street, set up again.

I mean, it’s just like ‘whack-a-mole’ — you know, that game where you are trying to whack them and they are running in and out?

TERENCE SMITH: Unlike junk mail, which involves printing, sorting and mailing expenses, spam costs the sender very little.

TED LEONSIS: You couldn’t mail a billion envelopes, trying to fool you into something, but you can send immediately at a very low price a billion e-mail messages, and it only takes very, very small response rate to make it a business.

TERENCE SMITH: Businesses and consumers are investing heavily in filters to jam spam. America Online intercepts two billion spam messages everyday.

And in an unmarked building in northern Virginia, its anti-spam team blocks junk e-mail reported by subscribers, who alert the company with a click of the mouse.

AOL ANTI-SPAM STAFFER: We are looking at real-time e-mails that are coming in live. I can pull out this particular piece of mail, and I’ve found several complaints on it. They’ve just started mailing. Interestingly enough, this is actually somebody trying to sell spam as a business.

TERENCE SMITH: Internet service providers are going beyond filters in their war against spam, helping consumer create white lists for approved senders and black lists for unwanted ones.

So far, the results are less than perfect.

JAMES GLEICK: Spammers lie about who they are, and as soon as they get on your black list, they are somebody else.

And names on your white list can be forged, too. I get a lot spam that comes from James Gleick. Since I get spam that appears to be from me, well, I have had to take myself off my white list. (Laughter )

TERENCE SMITH: Atlanta-based Earthlink sees spam protection as a major marketing tool.

EARTHLINK COMMERCIAL: “Spaminator,” it helps reduce junk e-mail in your inbox.

TERENCE SMITH: It blocks unsolicited e-mail that comes into accounts established to ensnare spammers.

JIM ANDERSON, Earthlink: If you set up an account, and you, as the person who set it up, never sign up for anything, never tell anybody to send you something, then almost by definition, anything that shows up in there is unsolicited and therefore spam.

TERENCE SMITH: Jim Anderson is earthlink’s vice president for product development. He says the rising quantity of spam is overwhelming the system.

JIM ANDERSON: If you get ten spam messages a day, and you’ve got a filter that is 80 percent effective, maybe two get through.

If you get 100 spam messages a day, you still have got the exact same filter that’s the exact same 80 percent effective, but now, all of a sudden, 20 get in your email box.

And that’s kind of where we are today, is the quantity of spam has outgrown Spaminator’s ability or any other filter’s ability to keep up with it.

EARTHLINK COMMERCIAL: What’s wrong honey, in-box full of garbage?

TERENCE SMITH: And so, rolling out this summer: Earthlink’s son of Spaminator — called Spamblocker — it’s what’s known as a “challenge response” system.

JIM ANDERSON: Everybody does have a different definition of what spam is. What is offensive to me may be perfectly okay to you, or vice versa.

So Spamblocker actually lets the user decide by focusing on the actual sender of the message.

TERENCE SMITH: The system only accepts e-mail that has been approved for the customer’s address book. If unapproved, a message goes back to the sender, who can request to be allowed in.

JIM ANDERSON: What you’re doing is you’re shifting some of the burden of communication on to the sender of the e-mail. Spammers are of course not going to spend the time to request to be added to your address book.

TERENCE SMITH: But other challenge response systems have not been the silver bullet that will do in spam. James Gleick:

JAMES GLEICK: I find that people got kind of annoyed.

Sometimes you ask people to send you e-mail…and then you forget and they’re not on your list and they get the annoying response, and they say, “hey, wait a minute, you asked to hear from me. Why do I have to do this?” It’s a mess.

TERENCE SMITH: And as anti-spam technologies widen their attack, there are unintended victims.

CINDY COHN, Electronic Frontier Foundation: I think there is a whole lot of e-mail that doesn’t get delivered that people might actually want, if they knew.

TERENCE SMITH: Cindy Cohn is legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on Internet issues.

At a recent FTC forum on spam, she said her clients, including political action groups, are having requested e-mail caught in overzealous spam filters.

CINDY COHN: There are anti-spam technologies, very many of them, and so even if you are a small listserv owner, and you fix the problem that you might have with one spam filter, there are dozens more out there.

And so, the minute you feel like you have fixed one, another one comes up, and then another one comes up.

TERENCE SMITH: Major marketers say, they too are victims, and that in a desperate attempt to eliminate spam, consumers may miss messages they might want to receive.

ROBERT WIENTZEN, Direct Marketing Association: I think we have to be very careful here, that we don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

TERENCE SMITH: Bob Wientzen is president and CEO of the Direct Marketing Association.

ROBERT WIENTZEN: We receive all kinds of unsolicited commercial messages all day and, in fact, that’s the way we become aware of lots of things.

You receive unsolicited messages from billboards, from newspaper advertisements, from indeed, this media, television.

We receive all kinds of commercial messages… …and this is part of what drives the American economic system.

TERENCE SMITH: Wientzen says nearly two-thirds of commercial e-mail now on the Internet is fraudulent.

If scam artists are weeded out, and only the e-mail from legitimate marketers remains, he says much of the problem will disappear.

ROBERT WIENTZEN: The whole concept of a market-driven economy says that you don’t do things that your customers don’t like.

And so, I don’t see General Motors or Procter and Gamble overdoing e-mail to the point that they bother their customers.

They wouldn’t risk their reputation, or the reputation of their brands.

TERENCE SMITH: But what of smaller marketers, with less of a reputation at stake?

JAMES GLEICK: We all know about offers to enlarge various parts of your anatomy. And they claim that they are selling a legitimate product.

The people who are trying to sell me mortgages, I don’t know whether that’s legitimate, or not. I don’t want it, and I’m tired of hearing about it.

TERENCE SMITH: Some state laws, and proposed federal legislation, would require commercial e-mail to be labeled “ADV” for advertising.

But commercial e-mails, says Bob Wientzen, are not the only solicitations on the Internet.

ROBERT WIENTZEN: Why not “POL” for political, why not “REL” for religious? You know, there are people in this country who don’t want to receive those kinds of messages as well.

So why single out advertising, part of what’s driving our economy?

TERENCE SMITH: And Cindy Cohn worries about restricting access on the Internet itself.

CINDY COHN: The ability of an individual person to stand on a soap box and have a voice that the whole world can hear is one of the great benefits of the Internet. And if that becomes collateral damage in our war on spam, then I think we will have broken something really terrific.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, the attacks on spam continue in courts and legislatures, in homes and offices.

At this point, are you winning the war, or just holding your own?

TED LEONSIS: I would say that we are in a good start.

TERENCE SMITH: So you are not prepared to declare victory?

TED LEONSIS: I don’t think we’ll ever be prepared to declare victory. I think this is like homeland security.

Every day that goes by that is safe is another day.

TERENCE SMITH: With spam continuing to multiply, the battle is far from over.