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Marketers vs. Spam? Hey, It's a Start

By Jane Black For Edward Gray, Mar. 6 was Black Thursday. Gray is director of network operations at Toronto-based Tucows, a reseller of Internet domain names. And once again, Tucows' e-mail server had mistakenly been blacklisted by an anti-spam software service, SpamCop. Tucows is legally required to send customers warnings that their domain names are about to expire, but for 11 long hours thousands of these messages were blocked by Internet service providers and corporations that look to SpamCop to help them distinguish between undesirable, unsolicited e-mail and legitimate correspondence.

With in boxes overflowing from get-rich-quick schemes and Viagra specials, it's easy to see why customers use blacklists and other techniques to stop spam. In February, 43% of e-mail -- or 227 billion messages -- were junk, according to spam-filtering company Brightmail. That's up from just 8% in January, 2001.

Incidents such as these also are frustrating legitimate businesses, which rely on e-mail to deliver timely, valuable information. A recent survey of the top 10 ISPs conducted by e-mail delivery service Assurance Systems revealed that on average, 15% of legitimate messages do not get through because crude filtering software mistake them for spam.

DISTRESSED DAMSEL. The result: After years of opposing anti-spam measures, businesses are jumping on the bandwagon. The powerful Direct Marketing Assn. now supports federal legislation, albeit limited in scope. A few weeks ago, the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) brought together 30 digital marketers, including DoubleClick (DCLK), Digital Impact (DIGI), and Experian, to form the e-mail Service Provider Coalition.

The group also is pushing for national laws and working to develop sophisticated software to deliver legitimate mail and weed out spam. "We see spam as an enormous threat to e-mail and the ongoing viability of our businesses," says Trevor Hughes, the NAI's executive director. "We need to solve the spam problem -- without killing the killer app."

Usually, I wouldn't get excited about marketers' claims to get serious about spam. But I confess, I'm a damsel in distress, desperate for them to join this fight. Like so many others, my e-mail box is flooded every morning with spam -- Nigerians who want my bank account details to sneak their money out of the country, come-ons from busty blondes and schoolgirls, and messages I (luckily?) can't understand because they're in Chinese.

"TRUSTED TRAVELER." No kidding, I get more than 150 unsolicited messages a day. And with limited space allotted to each employee on my company's mail server, that means I spend about an hour a day cleaning out my in box. I'm not going to be choosy about who comes to my rescue.

Let's face it, no one else will. Telemarketers have been bothering us during dinner for a decade. And yet, it took President Bush until Mar. 11 to sign legislation that establishes a national "do-not-call" list. Congress' focus on the war with Iraq means anti-spam legislation has little chance of passing this year. And spammers need to find only one idiot in a million who responds to make it worth their while. So, call me crazy, but I'm betting that corporations' self interest is the best way forward.

One marketer-backed solution is the so-called whitelist -- a register of trusted senders. Think of it as a "trusted traveler" program for e-mail: Just as passengers would submit personal permit background checks and fingerprints to allow them to jump to the front of the check-in line at the airport, whitelists contain lists of companies that guarantee they're sending legitimate e-mail. If they send unsolicited mail, they pay a fine. "More and more people are talking about whitelists. That's where everything is going," says Julian Haight, founder of SpamCop.

PRIORITY SERVICE. Max Keller, chief technology officer of online financial information service Motley Fool, is one person talking about whitelists. He has signed up as part of Silicon Valley startup IronPort's BondedSender program. IronPort has contracts with more than 700 ISPs and guarantees that companies on its safe list won't deliver spam. If users complain about a whitelisted company's messages, the company pays.

The price? For 10 complaints per million messages, companies pay 50 cents per complaint. For 10 to 20, the fine is $1 each. For 30 to 40 complaints -- and after a warning -- BondedSenders pay $1,000 per message. Proceeds are donated to nonprofit organizations that work to reduce spam. To date Motley Fool, which sends out about 50 million e-mail newsletters and offers a month, has yet to pay a fine.

The idea, says IronPort CEO Scott Weiss, is to create the same kind of priority service online that already exists in the real world. If the sender is on a whitelist, e-mail administrators might deliver their messages more quickly than unregistered senders. They might also give them the right to send larger attachments or to enable a secure exchange of information. "Identity-based solutions are the first step toward setting up first class, second class, and bulk mail on the Internet," says Weiss. "E-mail can't be the same five years from now as it is today. Otherwise the system will break down."

TEETH NEEDED. Will these efforts stop spam? It's a start, but an imperfect one. After all, marketers' support of anti-spam technologies are intended to help them make their way into your in box more effectively, not thwart all illegitimate e-mail. Moreover, as technology gets smarter, so will the spammers. "People come up with all kinds of tricks. But it's like putting fires out on the surface of a volcano," says Matthew Berke, an analyst with Jupiter Research.

To beat spam, marketers must find ways to verify their legitimacy. Corporations and individuals must adopt anti-spam technology. Then Congress needs to pass legislation with real teeth that will help track down and punish wily spammers. That's a long way off. But at least more people are now fighting in the consumer's corner. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column

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