Spam: How to Be Part of the Solution

If you’re a marketer, your organization probably sends a lot of email. Even if you’re not using it as an acquisition tool, you might employ newsletters, order confirmations, and shipping notifications. Even the sheer weight of employee email sent out over the course of a day can stack up pretty high.

Why does this matter? Well, your company can play a role in testing anti-spam solutions that add an identity element to email. This week marked the beginning of the first end-to-end testing of proposals being considered by the major ISPs. You can help.

As many of my colleagues have written, modifying email to add verifiable identity is an important first step to eradicating spam. It would make even faster work of spoofers and phishers.

This week, Microsoft jumped into the anti-spam proposal fray by laying out its “Coordinated Spam Reduction Initiative” (CSRI) — a sort of road map to Bill Gates’ spam-free world in 2006. Initiative number one, “Caller ID for E-Mail,” addresses sender authentication. What’s heartening is no big surprises are found therein. The technology for Caller ID for E-Mail is similar to DomainKeys, proposed by Yahoo, and SPF, another system America Online is testing.

So far, the Redmond, CA, based company is furthest along in testing an end-to-end authentication scheme. Obviously, the software giant has an important role to play in the spam battle because of its role as parent of Hotmail, MSN, and the Exchange Server mail transfer agent (MTA).

(A quick note: I’m no Microsoft cheerleader. The security issues resulting from the company’s vulnerability-ridden software have enabled a huge amount of spam — and worse. Yet in this case, Microsoft is playing well with others, which is critical, and is working in a fairly open way, although Caller ID has been criticized for complexity on the receiving end.)

Microsoft is working with Sendmail, Brightmail, and even Amazon to test Caller ID for E-Mail. Most notable for the marketing community is the Network Advertising Initiataive’s (NAI’s) E-Mail Service Provider Coalition (ESPC) is on board for testing the proposed solution, as well as Yahoo’s DomainKeys and AOL’s SPF.

“Certainly the interest within the ESPC is extremely high,” said Margaret Olson, co-chair of the group’s technology committee and CTO of Roving Software. “I would imagine almost all [the members] will be participating. Everyone wants to see this problem solved, and everyone wants to see this problem solved fast.”

If you’re a marketer who works with an ESPC member (including Digital Impact, DoubleClick, IMN, Responsys, etc.), let that person know you’re interested in participating in any tests being conducting.

Even if your company sends bulk email itself, it seems a fairly simple process to implement the Caller ID requirements — at least on the outbound side. Microsoft has published a handy little technical guide. It’s only six pages long! Still, you’ll have to talk to whomever administers the DNS for your domain.

“All of these proposals involve putting something in the DNS,” Olson told me. “Currently, marketing organizations don’t go anywhere near that. You have to put two people together who don’t even know each other exists.”

Once Yahoo gets DomainKeys into widespread testing (it’s working with Sendmail on software that will be tested next month), give that a try too, if you can. The more companies participate, the more likely a robust solution will emerge that will get your email delivered to recipients — and nefarious email blocked.

“The Internet email system is so enormous that there’s no small test you can do to tell you how it’ll work in the larger world,” John Levine, co-chair of the Anti-Spam Research Group and author of “Fighting Spam for Dummies.” “There are so many different email implementations.”

George Webb, Microsoft’s business manager for anti-spam technology and strategy, agrees, saying, “This has to be broad-based and system-wide. You always find things that you didn’t anticipate once you start deploying.”

It’s worth it to participate because these industry efforts have a very important goal — protecting your brand from spoofers and phishers. Of course, they’re also the first step toward eradicating spam, or at least minimizing its impact. It might not happen by 2006, but you can help ensure it happens.

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

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