Spam: Time for a Better Tech Solution

In the few moments since I began thinking about how to start this column, I’ve received emails hawking pheromones guaranteed to attract the opposite sex, novelty million dollar bills, and a 50-minute phone card that I’d receive free if I bought printer ink. The spam problem is getting out of hand.

San Francisco anti-spam technology company Brightmail is currently reported to be dealing with an average of 25,000 unique spam messages a day, as compared with 15,000 last quarter. Two years ago, the number was only 5,000. Jupiter Media Metrix says the average American received 571 spam messages in 2001. By 2006, that same person will receive 1,479.

There’s no need to tell you, dear marketer, why this is a problem. For one thing, when I spend an hour a day (in lost productivity) cleaning out my email inbox, I certainly don’t have as much free time to carry on email relationships with legitimate opt-in marketers. Then, there’s email fatigue, defined by Logophilia.com as: “Mental exhaustion caused by receiving a large number of email messages each day.” That’s not exactly the state of mind in which you’re hoping to find your target customer, is it?

Currently, there’s not much consumers can do to battle the rising tide of unsolicited commercial email. My Outlook junk mail filters are a hassle for me to manage, and I’m more technically adept than your average Web surfer. My Web-based email accounts purport to have junk email blocking, but those filters catch only the most egregious spam.

In fact, Yahoo mail’s proprietary filtering system caught only 63.5 percent of spam in a test conducted earlier this year by eTesting Labs and Brightmail. In the same study, America Online’s filtering system snagged only 28 percent of unsolicited commercial emails. The Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) Realtime Blackhole List resulted in only 12.5 percent of spam being blocked. Brightmail’s own system caught 94 percent, but, having tried its system on my home EarthLink account, I can attest even that rate of success is inadequate given the growing volume of spam.

In my long, torturous, and wearying efforts to reduce my spam burden, the best technological solution I’ve come across is something called SpamCop — a company that sprang from grassroots anti-spam efforts. It’s not perfect, but the system has a lot to recommend it. It could be used as a foundation for an industrywide solution. And I believe that’s what’s needed. Legitimate email marketers need to cooperate to come up with — and maintain — a technological spam solution. It’s in the best interests of the industry and of consumers.

I use SpamCop to forward all my email to the company’s servers, where it is filtered before I retrieve it. Items determined to be spam are “held” for me to inspect (i.e., approve, delete, or report) at my leisure, while legitimate mail is passed through. How does it know what legitimate mail is? During the set-up period, I entered a “white-list” of email addresses of my contacts. Any email not originating from a known spam IP address or on my personal blacklist reaches my inbox.

It sounds pretty conventional. But the most interesting part of the system is the reporting function. When I choose to report spam (I can report mail that accidentally makes it through the filters as well as mail that is held), the system sends a complaint via email to the operator of the Internet service provider (ISP) from which the offending message was sent. It also places the sender on a blacklist.

Were there a significant number subscribers to such a service, reporting spam as soon as it rears its ugly head, the collective wisdom and experience would result in more effective spam blocking all round. Quick reporting requires an easy method. I envision a software modification to Outlook and other email clients that would enable users to identify and report spam at the click of a button — just as easy hitting the delete key. SpamCop and its partners make it fairly easy, but we need to go further.

The problem may be the issue of cost. SpamCop charges by volume. Within a few weeks, I managed to go through a volume of spam the average person receives in two years. If it costs the average person $12.50 a year to filter and report spam through the system, it would cost me more than $1,100. As time goes on, average volume will creep closer to what I get. It’s not feasible for people to pay that much for such a system.

It would be worth it if reputable email marketers banded together to investigate the economics of subsidizing a solution. Return on investment (ROI) would be partially calculated based on the increased effectiveness of their own opt-in messaging. Consumers could shoulder a portion of the cost and assume the role of watchdog. ISPs would likely pony up some dough, given that reducing spam would ease the load on their servers. I’m not saying efforts toward anti-spam legislation should be abandoned, but I do believe a better technological solution — and human reporting — would be the most immediately effective way of tackling this very serious issue.

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