Before Spam Brings the Web to Its Knees

To halt the scourge ISPs, Congress, tech outfits, and big thinkers are chewing over charging for messages, regulations, smarter filters, and more

Last May, Amanda Bernard's e-mail box was suddenly deluged with 20,000 identical messages. For weeks, the flood stopped the 32-year-old New Yorker from using her account. "Every time I tried, my computer froze and crashed," Bernard remembers. "I eventually had to get a programmer friend to go in and delete everything." Since then, she has been hit five more times by hundreds of pieces of spam from direct marketers -- but never to the point where her PC has crashed and burned. Oh, and what was that crucial message that Bernard received 20,000 times? "How to make my penis bigger," she laughs.

No wonder spam has become a scourge of society. In a single day in May, No. 1 Internet service provider AOL Time Warner (AOL ) blocked 2 billion spam messages -- 88 per subscriber -- from hitting its customers' e-mail accounts. Microsoft (MSFT ), which operates No. 2 Internet service provider MSN plus e-mailbox service Hotmail, says it blocks an average of 2.4 billion spams per day. According to research firm Radicati Group in Palo Alto, Calif., spam is expected to account for 45% of the 10.9 trillion messages sent around the world in 2003.

E-mail has made the Web the most socially interactive medium in history, and spam is rapidly turning it into the most cluttered. If something isn't done, e-mail will become unusable and the Net -- the greatest communications medium of modern time -- will be taken over by hucksters and pornographers. Spam would become the ultimate killer app.


  Since the beginning of the year, Congress has introduced four bills to can spam. Technology companies such as Brightmail, McAfee (NET ) and Symantec (SYMC ) are trumpeting sophisticated filters that block suspicious e-mail before it enters your in-box, as well as permission-based schemes that require recipients to approve e-mail from unknown senders before they'll be delivered. Corporations, fearing a loss of productivity and the reaction of workers angry at being propositioned online, shelled out $120 million in 2002 on antispam products, according to research firm International Data Corp.

In a sense, spam may be too much of a good thing. True, plenty of junk communication existed pre-Internet, but there were -- and still are -- accompanying costs. Telemarketers have to pay the phone company to interrupt you during dinner, and organizations you have no interest in supporting have to pay the post office to send their solicitations. But spam costs almost nothing to reach hundreds of millions of people. So, here's the question for technologists, economists, and legislators: Is there such a thing as communication that's too cheap?

The surprising answer is probably not. History shows that lowering communication costs usually has more advantages than disadvantages. Fighting in the War of 1812 continued for three months after the Treaty of Ghent was signed -- because it took that long for the news to reach soldiers in New Orleans. In today's world, falling communications costs have improved efficiency, increased productivity, and in the process created a global society. And there is such a thing as good spam -- information and sales pitches that Web surfers ask to be sent their way. or at least have agreed to receive.


  It's simply in the grand tradition of capitalism that someone would find nefarious uses for such a powerful tool. The worst violators use stolen credit cards to set up fake accounts and send millions of messages in hopes of getting enough replies to make it worth their while. Whatever comes back is gravy, because spammers don't pay the price -- ISPs do.

Witness the case of Howard Carmack, the so-called Buffalo spammer. On May 7, ISP Earthlink (ELNK ) won a $16.7 million judgment against Carmack for sending out more than 825 million e-mails over two years from various Earthlink accounts. According to Mary Youngblood, Earthlink's abuse manager, the bandwidth costs for Carmack alone totaled more than $1 million. He has also been charged in state court with identity theft and forgery. If convicted, Carmack faces three-and-a-half to seven years in prison.

Regulation is one way to rein in future Carmacks -- if only someone could design the right kind. The Interior Dept. stipulates how many head of cattle can graze on public land. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates what level of pollutants companies can release into the environment. But unlike cows and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), spam isn't that easy to qualify or quantify. Hundreds of come-ons for sex may be spam to one person, while hundreds of come-to-Jesus messages will be spam to another. ISPs can't be sure what to block, any more than legislators can define what to outlaw.


  For simplicity's sake, antispam activists define junk e-mail as unsolicited commercial messages. "It's a purely practical, political decision because there are complicated issues related to free speech with noncommercial solicitations [such as e-mail from politicians or advocacy groups]," says Ray Everett Church, counsel of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE). "That's not to say that the infrastructure cost of noncommercial spam isn't the same," Church says. "But fighting that fight is more than many politicians are prepared to do at the moment."

Most people agree that penalizing perpetrators of excess commercial spam is a step in the right direction -- if only you can catch the miscreants. In an interview, Earthlink's Youngblood said it took her and her team of more than a dozen people more than a year to catch up with Carmack. While in full pursuit, Earthlink's abuse team spent as many as 30 hours each week tracking, identifying, and shutting down accounts as fast as Carmack set them up.

Youngblood considers herself lucky to have run down Carmack at all: "In general, once we recognize a pattern, we put a stranglehold on [spammers]," she says. "They go away after one or two tries. From our perspective, the problem is solved."


  Solved for Earthlink, but not for the next ISP the spammer targets or the larger Internet population. And that's why the Net elite are hotly debating imposing a cost for communicating via the Web. Just how such a system would work -- who would collect the money and where it would go -- hasn't been decided. But the theory is gaining adherents.

"It's important to recognize that there's a difference between free and very inexpensive," says Howard Rheingold, a consultant, author, and expert on the Internet's impact on society. "There should be a very small cost -- maybe one-tenth of a cent per e-mail -- that's a negligible burden on honest people but is insupportable for someone who's going to abuse the system and send out hundreds of millions of e-mails."

A pay-per-message system would also reign in small-time abuse by nonspammers. Would people really forward jokes and chain letters to 50 friends if it costs them 5 cents every time they send something to their whole address book? Sure, it's cheaper than the post office, but perhaps people would think twice.


  Others argue that creating cost where none is justified is absurd. "People are so blinded by anger about spam that they forget to look for more general tools" to deal with it, says John Gilmore, an Internet pioneer and one of the original founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group whose aim is to protect consumers' digital rights. Gilmore is working on a system called Grockmail that would allow recipients to rate messages based on how interesting they find them. As Grockmail learned from those ratings, it would prioritize messages by type. Instead of showing new mail chronologically, it might place a message from your boss above a message from a mailing list you signed up for. Both would show above before any nonrated stuff -- presumably spam.

"Most people try to figure out what you hate," says Gilmore. "But they're going about it the wrong way. If they try to figure out what interests you, you have a tool that will help get rid of spam and make more efficient use of your time."

Gilmore has a point. Look at telemarketing and the direct-mail business. Though consumers complain vigorously about dinner-time interruptions, in 2002 telemarketers sold about $100 billion in products over the phone, according to the Direct Marketing Assn. And direct mail -- aka junk mail -- brought in $154 billion.

That's small consolation to people like Amanda Bernard. And so the solution to e-mail abuse is likely to be a combination of apprehending criminal spammers who violate ISP terms of service and using prioritization tools that make the most interesting messages float to the surface. That way, spam might stay where it belongs: At the bottom of the heap.

By Jane Black in New York

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