Questions for Cloudmark’s Karl Jacob

Karl Jacob2004 has been a promising year for email. Despite still-increasing levels of spam, the last ten months have seen the first serious-minded laws and credible proposals to drastically reduce unwanted email in the world’s inboxes. While the march toward authentication has recently hit some stumbling blocks, most agree ISPs will soon implement standards that will end spoofing and likely reduce spam in 2005.

This is a good thing for everyone but spammers and, perhaps, the anti-spam companies that make their money fighting them. What will happen to crusaders in the spam fight — companies like Symantec’s Brightmail and Cloudmark — when the spam scourge ends? ClickZ called Cloudmark CEO Karl Jacob to ask that question and others.

Q. The backers of Sender ID recently clashed with the open source community, threatening to divide the industry between two authentication standards. What do you think is going to happen with the implementation of different authentication standards, and what does that mean for your business?

A. I think it’s unfortunate that everybody couldn’t just get along. It’s better to have one solution than two. I think we’re working back toward that, but it’s going to take a while. This is a setback.

In general, authentication isn’t going to help with the spam problem; it’s only going to help with identifying legitimate mail. The other thing we’re adamant about is that authentication without reputation would be like credit cards without any identification required. They’re linked.

And even the most ardent supporters of authentication say it’ll be two years before we see a real impact on daily spam levels.

We think in the short term the best way to stop spam is to use a spam blocking technology. The idea is to use authentication and spam blocking in concert, so you help identify the good people and keep the bad people out. You need to have a fence to keep out the threats, but you need a gate to let your friends in.

Q. E-mail gateways have gotten a fair amount of attention in the past year. How do spam blocking platforms like Cloudmark measure up against this type of solution?

A. A lot of people have bet on technologies around this idea: if we can block IP addresses, we can block individual people. For the most part it doesn’t work. Spammers move IP addresses so quickly you can’t keep track of them.

The solution can become worse than the problem itself. It only takes one message from a customer to the CEO to go into the spam folder to reveal the vulnerability of a system. The critical elements are high accuracy and low false positives, not one or the other.

The key in this new world of spam blocking technologies and authentication and reputation is that marketers need feedback about how their mailings are perceived. Right now there’s a fair amount of disconnection. If a mistake is made, and AOL or Yahoo blocks [a legitimate marketer], they may not know why. What we’re trying to do is not just block spam, but create an email system where players can self-correct. That’s been the missing component of spam blocking.

Q. How will your offerings change along with the spam-fighting landscape? What do you do if spam decreases precipitously?

A. I think the spammers are smart enough to work around pretty much everything we throw at them. Is crime ever going to go away? No. Hopefully it’ll be greatly reduced, but it will never disappear.

In terms of our business, I think it’ll be healthy and strong. We’ve got eight years under our belt in the anti-virus industry. Spam’ll be exactly the same if not worse. There is no silver bullet. Authentication is great, but we have authentication in the offline world. It’s called personal identification. Spammers have already started sending authenticated spam using SPF and Sender ID. That’s proof it’s not going to stop them.

Two, three years down the road, hopefully we have a large number of people who are good senders. We will have a reputation system so that if someone starts doing things that are damaging their relationship to consumers, we pick up on it right away. We will have better systems for marketers, systems for identifying good content.

An example: Most of us get credit card bills in the mail. A lot of those are filled with ads. Being able to separate that content from those ads and saying I want this but I don’t want that is a key part of it. It’s the reputation stuff that’s going to separate the good from the bad.

Q. What role do you envision for marketers in Cloudmark’s platform?

A. What we’re trying to do is advocate a system where feedback is the most important piece. Companies are saying, ‘Hey, we can stop spam, and we’re not going to tell marketers why we stop their messages.’

As businesses become more dependent on e-commerce and email, businesses are going to say, ‘Well, it’s great that the technical solution is here, but we need a business solution.’ [They need a system] that appreciates that they make a lot of money by selling to people through this channel. We’re moving past the days of it being purely a technology game, and more toward the days of it being a business problem with a business solution.

I’m surprised marketers haven’t gotten more involved in the decisions around spam filtering and reputation services.

Q. Describe a day in the life of Karl Jacob.

A. Get up, work out and start meetings around 9 a.m. A typical day is split between dealing with business issues and working with our many talented execs to grow the business.

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