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May I See Your ID?

  |  August 27, 2004   |  Comments

E-mail Sender ID isn't an if, and the when is imminent. Get ready for another new e-mail environment. It will be different -- and very probably better, too.

"Sender ID won't stop spam, but it could create an even stickier environment for marketers than even the current email climate," Dave Anderson, Sendmail president and CEO, told me when we met last week to discuss the Next Big E-Mail Standard.

Brace yourselves, marketers. There's no rest for the weary. Now that you've developed expertise in SPF (you have, haven't you?), it's time to bone up on Sender ID.

This latest email authentication system is coming your way. Sendmail is taking a leadership role. It plans to release a free plug-in for commercial and open-source versions of its mail-routing software, which handles a pretty good percentage of the world's email traffic. Around November, entities such as Microsoft and Sendmail will issue announcements requesting every email sender in the world implement Sender ID. This fall, all Microsoft-owned ISPs and AOL plan to fast-track Sender ID-authenticated email into their subscribers' inboxes. The implication, of course, is they'll molasses-track everything else.

Once the plug-in is made available, every email admin in the world, from Fortune 500s to people who run Web servers in their garages, has the potential to be similarly equipped at absolutely no cost. Sendmail wants all the world's half-billion email users to implement Sender ID, which, while simple, represents a fundamental change in email infrastructure. It's being evaluated by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as a potential industry standard for email authentication. The goal, says Anderson, is to get half of all legitimate American email authenticated by the end of this year. In comparison, just over 70,000 domains have self-reported registration for SPF this year.

Meanwhile, Sendmail and other missionaries are working to spread the Sender ID gospel abroad. "Japan is just as rabid to deploy this as companies in the U.S. are," he said of a recent trip.

Sender ID, which combines Microsoft's Caller ID for E-Mail with SPF, helps assure email is from the domain (as distinct from the person) it appears to be from. It will put a dent in spam, but its primary purpose is to help eradicate spoofing and phishing, the more nefarious incarnations of email evil.

It's built to tap into reputation services that can help determine the sender's legitimacy. Say you get a message that's indisputably from GeorgeWBush.com. Is that domain good... or evil? That's where reputation comes in.

As DoubleClick's Ken Takahashi, senior director of email operations and ISP relations, puts it, "I assess Sender ID as the ability to assign Social Security numbers to senders of email. It doesn't mean you're going to get the car loan or the mortgage. It means you're listed, and we know how to run checks on you."

"Everyone has the ability to get their mail through without one central authority being king of everything," says Anderson. "I can completely eliminate false positives for people who are willing to authenticate. If you authenticate, your message should be deliverable."

Sender ID will soon become a fact of life for nearly everyone involved in the email chain. In addition to the major ISPs already on board, email security companies and email service providers (ESPs), including IronPort, DoubleClick, Bigfoot Interactive, and VeriSign, have adopted it or plan to. Reputation service provider Cloudmark will combine it with its existing services.

The Playing Field Changes

Overall, Sender ID is good for marketers, but it does present some new issues. Questions remain open regarding delivery and how Sender ID implementation will affect specific email industry sectors.

"Will forwarded messages get through, and how many messages are forwarded, anyway?" is one question Anderson raises but can't answer. Another is the issue of opt-in and -out. "These concepts are going to become completely irrelevant," he claims. In its place there will exist what can only be considered extreme best practices. "How did I feel when I got your last message?" becomes the bar that determines if the next one is delivered, according to Anderson.

An unsubscribe mechanism is planned for Sender ID at some future date (as are other layers, such as accommodating email postage). Admins and end users will still be free to add entire domains to their personal block lists, or, conversely, they may not add senders to allow lists.

"Users may 'allow-list' many fewer sources than the E-mail Service Provider Coalition hopes they would," Anderson notes. "The costs of targeting are going to go way up. What's the cost if I [as a sender] get put on the block list? Blocking is way nastier than being taken off the allow list. The material [recipients] get must be much more interesting. In this environment, unsubscribe works."

Ultimately, Sender ID may affect the deliverability industry. "If your messages don't get through, you'll know about it," says Anderson. Will this mean senders may soon have no need for email deliverability services that track what happens to their messages and work with ISPs to help clients' email get through filtering hurdles?

"I'm not sure that's going to happen," says Return Path CEO Matt Blumberg. "At some point, the major ISPs are going to say, 'We're not going to deliver mail that doesn't have an associated SPF or Sender ID record.' The problem that's left is that anyone can publish an SPF record. Just because you have an SPF record doesn't mean that your mail should get through.

"Some deliverability people will be out of a job a couple years from now. When there are some real systems in place it won't be necessary to have people working in ISP relations or to monkey around with IP addresses," he predicts.

DoubleClick's Takahashi agrees. "In my eyes, it doesn't wipe out the need for ESPs to focus on deliverability. It does wipe out a portion of what the focus has been on."

Another focus Sender ID will shift is that of email filtering. As the sheer volume of email pummeling servers abates with authentication, the need for filters at both the enterprise and end-user levels will wane (we may never have to spell it "vi^gra" again). That, of course, could affect the fortunes of the companies that create these products.

Sender ID isn't an if, and the when is imminent. So fasten your seatbelts and get ready for another new email environment. It will be different -- and very probably better, too.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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