Drowning in Spam — and Anti-Spam Solutions

Spam. It’s one of those topics about which everyone has a story and an opinion. Every time ClickZ writes about it, responses flood in. They’re passionate and usually well-reasoned, and yet they all come to differing conclusions about what needs to be done about the spam problem. None, of course, deny spam is a problem.

In my quest for the ultimate solution, I’ve tried it all. If you, as a ClickZ reader, have sent an email sharing your personal spam solution — the one you use, your company uses, or your company developed — I’ve probably installed it at one time or another (much to the chagrin of our IT support folks). Right now, I’ve got Cloudmark’s SpamNet, SpamCop, MailShell’s SpamCatcher, and Brightmail filtering my mail. Guess what? I still get spam. (Don’t even ask about my configuration. It’s Byzantine.)

The problem has reached a point where a whole raft of companies — a new one launching every day, it seems — purports to be working to solve the spam crisis. Yet their continued existence depends on spam remaining an ongoing problem. For these companies to survive, the situation must be serious enough for companies and individuals to cough up big bucks for protection. With a profit motive in play, there’s obviously little motivation for these players to work together. I’ve even heard of one anti-spam company actively blocking email originating from people on the whitelist of another anti-spam company.

Yesterday, the folks at the Email Service Provider Coalition (ESPC) of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) gave me, and all of you, something to chew on. Project Lumos is a blueprint for an ambitious plan to eradicate the spam problem. I think it has a chance of achieving dramatic results. The danger is it may become just another filtering criterion, like blacklists, whitelists, and content analyzing algorithms, which have immensely complicated the task of getting email delivered. (Full disclosure: Hans-Peter Brøndmo, chair of the ESPC’s technology working group and the project’s progenitor, is a fellow ClickZ columnist.)

Project Lumos combines some elements of solutions already proposed or implemented. The masterstroke is at this point, the proposal is not “owned” by anyone. Yet its mission is reflected in the collective goal of those who conceived it — people who want permission-based marketing email to be delivered.

The basic outline of the plan:

  • Central registry. This would handle implementation of the plan and serve as a sort of sender information clearinghouse. Whether the registry is a nonprofit or for-profit entity remains to be seen.

  • Identification. One of the hurdles in the spam battle has been it’s difficult to tell who, exactly, is sending an email message. Sure, you can use IP addresses. Many systems do. Consider mail sent by one of the coalition’s email service providers or via any big ISP. In a variety of situations, the same IP address is used to send mail for a number of different senders. An identification process, achieved via issuance of a certificate by the central registry, addresses that issue. This secure certificate would be included in the headers of all of mail from that sender.
  • Performance monitoring. ISPs receiving spam complaints from their users would send that feedback to the central registry. There, the feedback would be compiled and ratings assigned to senders based on performance factors.
  • Filtering. Performance ratings would also be incorporated into email headers. These would enable ISPs and enterprises to filter incoming mail based on the ratings. Presumably, mail from senders with high ratings would be sent to recipients, while other email (including non-certified email) would go through more rigorous testing, perhaps being placed in a “bulk mail” folder. The filtering process is entirely at the discretion of individual ISPs and operators of corporate email gateways.

There are lots of pieces to this puzzle, and it must be assembled correctly to work. Most important, the ISPs must buy in. Support must also be forthcoming from filtering companies such as Brightmail, software vendors such as Microsoft, consumer advocates such as CAUCE, and more. Next week in Washington DC, concurrent with the FTC’s three day Spam Forum, the ESPC will host a dinner to which it’s invited a number of the major ISPs. Early talks with these crucial players are said to be promising.

ClickZ readers will no doubt have opinions about the initiative. The ESPC is actively soliciting input for what it acknowledges is a work in progress. It says it will soon announce how you can weigh in with your thoughts on further developing the blueprint.

I think Brøndmo said it best: “The next big step on this is to get the collaboration going, because that’s really what this hinges on. No single entity will solve the spam problem. Microsoft can’t solve the spam problem. AOL can’t solve the spam problem. We can’t solve the spam problem. It has to be a collaboration.”

Meet Pamela at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.

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