Combat Malicious Internet Use

Recently, Microsoft announced a $5 million bounty program to help root out virus writers. Though the proposal met mixed reviews, it’s too early to judge its effectiveness. It makes me a bit nervous but seems like a step in the right direction.

Malicious use of the Internet is a big problem. Viruses are the most obvious and expensive nuisances, costing all of us tens of billions of dollars per year in protection and cleanup costs. Spam’s impact on business is estimated anywhere between $10 and $20 billion per year. No one’s studied the economic impact of spyware, but your IT department will tell just how much of their time is spent fixing computers infected with “marketing” programs.

Almost all research on malicious Internet problems conducted to date concentrates on enterprise markets. The untapped (and potentially much larger) issue is the impact they’re having on consumers, through opportunity cost. A recent Verisign study finds growth of fraud and security problems outpaces Net usage growth. Clearly, serious issues are ahead.

Numerous attempts to legislate such problems out of existence have failed. Industry groups, such as the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), Direct Marketing Association (DMA), and Association of National Advertisers (ANA), united to condemn spam. Yet such edicts are preaching to the choir. If you’re legit enough to belong to one of these groups, you’re probably not getting rich selling herbal Viagra. The FBI and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are pushing public awareness. But the problem gets worse every day.

We’re reaching a point where the Internet will become unusable for consumers and business people alike. Parents will get sick of filtering out porn, squashing spyware, and buying new antivirus software. When that happens, the plug will be pulled. Though email is vital to business, at some point the cost of fighting spam will outpace email’s benefits. The result may be a move away from the public Internet (or limited usage of it) to more private networks and secure channels.

The Net’s very nature led to its growth and ubiquity. It’s also led to malicious usage. It’s so easy to connect to the Internet anonymously and hack the system. Spammers, scammers, and malicious programmers flourish.

Solving the problems will take concerted effort and require technology, money, and people. It won’t be easy. As marketers making our livings on the Net, we have no alternative. We must confront the problems head on and work together. The alternative? The end of the Net as we know it.

To get the ball rolling, a few simple suggestions:

  • Create an industry-wide scam-catcher fund. If Microsoft can pony up $5 million to go after virus writers, a coalition of ad industry leaders can offer a bounty for anyone who turns in spammers. The Software & Information Industry Association (formerly Software Publishers Association) ran a very successful “turn in your boss” anti-piracy campaign for years. A similar effort targeting spammers could root out individuals who are ruining email.

  • Ban spyware. Period. We know who these companies are; some of us even advertise with them. Though spyware purveyors will disagree heartily, there’s little difference between a malicious virus and a program that installs itself, digs into the registry, and resists all attempts at removal. Spyware programs are equivalent to viruses and should be regulated as such.
  • Insist on knowing your list’s source. Resisting the temptation to use a cheap list is hard. Your brand will thank you in the long run.
  • Educate your clients. Although agencies like to think they’re providing guidance, plenty of vendors try to circumvent agencies and sell to clients directly. Make sure your clients know what the issues are so they can resist slick sales pitches.
  • Follow established guidelines and best practices. If the industry sticks together, we’ll further marginalize the illegitimate.
  • Work toward implementation of a more secure IP. The Internet’s basic infrastructure is being changed (there’s a good overview here). The result will be more secure. This is good. It should be supported.
  • Support encryption standards. As I’ve said before, ubiquitous use of digital signatures could really help can the spam.
  • Think long term. Thinking beyond the next campaign is hard in today’s instant return on investment (ROI) world. If we’re going to stay in the game, we’ve gotta consider how our marketing impacts the user experience and the Internet “brand.”

In our zeal to sell stuff, we don’t want to turn users off by bombarding them with unsolicited email, pop-ups, irritating ad formats, and the like. We’re still a young industry. We’re working on long-term, mass acceptance of the medium. Let’s not kill the golden goose and miss the bounty that can come with the future.

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