Hitting Spammers Where It Hurts

A smart new attack on junk e-mail aims to make it too costly for spammers to operate

You might not know it by looking at your e-mail inbox, but the tide has turned in the war on spam.

On the surface, things are still getting worse. On May 2, Brightmail, a maker of spam-blocking software, announced that unsolicited commercial e-mail accounted for 46% of all e-mail traffic, up from 18% a year ago. Now, there's a rising tide of protest from businesses and consumers demanding action. And government and the tech industry are responding. Spam will never go away, but for the first time since it became a real problem a couple of years ago, I am confident that it can be drastically reduced.

The reason for my optimism is the realization that the very thing that makes spam so vexing is also its greatest vulnerability. Sending a piece of junk mail via the U.S. Postal Service costs 25 cents just for postage. A telemarketing call is at least as expensive. Sending junk e-mail costs a minuscule fraction of a penny. That's why spammers can afford to send out tens of millions of messages and make money getting only a handful of responses.

The newly united spam fighters at America Online (AOL ), MSN (MSFT ), and Yahoo! (YHOO ) understand that the real attack on junk e-mail should be economic, not technical or legal. For example, each message that is blocked by filters before a recipient can see it is a tiny bit of overhead for the sender. "Everything we are doing adds to the costs of spammers," says Microsoft (MSFT ) point man in the fight, MSN Vice-President Brian Arbogast. "Everything we do to differentiate legitimate mailers from the bad guys reduces the economic viability of spam."

The beauty of fighting spam through economics is that the approach as a whole hits harder than the sum of its parts. However imperfect each component may be, anything it adds to the spammers' costs increases the effectiveness of the total strategy.

A bill introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) has broad support and is a good starting point. It would require that all unsolicited commercial e-mail carry a valid return address, be flagged in the subject as advertising, and give recipients a legitimate way to get off the list. The problem is that enforcement responsibility is given to an already overburdened Federal Trade Commission.

A better approach is to give those who are hit by illegal spam the right to seek damages, perhaps through class actions -- a 1991 federal law setting damages of $50 per unsolicited fax message is a good model. Furthermore, because many bulk mailers hide offshore, liability should be extended to the far more vulnerable U.S. companies on whose behalf the spam was sent. Since many of these businesses sell goods, they need a physical address that puts them within reach of the federal courts. (The same basic approach is equally valid in other countries.)

Internet service providers have to do their part, too. Most already will terminate the account of any customer caught sending spam. They also need to cut off any customer whose sites are advertised through links in spam. And the big backbone carriers, such as MCI and Sprint (FON ), must put pressure on the small and often sleazy ISPs that connect spam-related Web sites to the Internet.

Critics will complain that lots of spam will be untouched by these steps. Many pornography sites, for example, operate entirely offshore. Even some Web sites that purport to sell goods are offshore scams that harvest personal information for use in identity theft. The complaints are valid, but they miss the point: There is plenty of low-hanging fruit. If we can knock off a lot of spam with simple steps, we can tackle the harder problems at our leisure.

In the unlikely event that we could raise the cost of sending junk e-mail to a penny a message through a combination of litigation, fines, loss of Internet connections, and other forms of well-deserved harassment, spam would wither. Even at a tenth of 1 cents, offers of fake Viagra, organ expanders, and cable descramblers would become hopelessly uneconomic.

It would have been better if we had gone after spam a couple of years ago, when the problem first started getting nasty. But the outrage had to reach crisis levels before we were ready to act. We are there now, and I think we are about to start winning.


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