Commentary: From Open Doors to Gated Communities

No introductions are needed. You already know the Nigerian with the overflowing bank account and the loudmouthed financier offering dirt-cheap mortgages. The guy in the lab coat? His miracle pills and organ enhancements are old news. Thanks to a flood of junk e-mail, or spam, messages from this dubious crowd now account for 50% of all electronic mail. In clogging up the Internet, spam is rapidly turning e-mail into an annoyance and eroding productivity as workers are forced to sift through scores or even hundreds of messages.

And it's getting worse. Sophisticated spammers are unleashing viruses that turn undefended computers into spamming machines. Hackers are also using the same technique for mass-mailings of dangerous viruses and worms. They are "gravitating toward e-mail," says Linda Beck, executive vice-president for operations at Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. As a result, the global e-mail system, one of the most prodigious productivity tools of the Digital Age, is under siege.

What can be done? Ask anyone in Washington or Silicon Valley, and you'll hear answers. New laws, new filters, you name it. But each one has flaws. None promises lasting relief. Increasingly, it appears that to master spam and reclaim electronic mail as a trusted communications medium, the entire e-mail system must be rethought. This will entail important sacrifices, ones that are bound to rob e-mail of its freedom, breadth, and spontaneity. Drastic measures are bound to run up against fierce resistance. But that may well melt away in the coming year as the spam crisis mounts.

It's bound to intensify as spammers hurdle every obstacle thrown in their way. Consider filters. In early jousts, filters blocked messages advertising, say, Viagra. Spammers responded with V!agra. Tighter filters establish so-called white lists. These instruct PCs to accept messages only from approved senders. But now, in the age of virus-powered spam, junk mail is likely to come straight from the computers of close friends and colleagues. Brace yourself for V!agra pitches from Mom.

Don't count on much help from Washington. Earlier this year, Congress debated tough measures. This sparked an outcry from legitimate marketers, who rely on the Internet to communicate with customers and suppliers. For now, the modest bills under deliberation would make it illegal for spammers to hide their return addresses or falsify their identities. Spammers, however, are expected to pay little heed to these or any other laws. And if the estimated 300 spammers who dominate the field feel too much pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, they can always move more operations overseas, a process already under way. Effective global agreements regulating spam are years away at best.

This means that companies and individuals alike may well have to refashion e-mail. To stem the tide of spam, look for the wide-open e-mail system of today to subdivide into millions of mini, self-contained networks, each serving its own trusted circle. For starters, companies can be expected to tighten controls on their private networks, known as intranets. If the Internet has been a Leave It to Beaver neighborhood with doors unlocked to all, spam will turn it into a constellation of gated communities with no-nonsense digital guards at the entrance. "We're entering a new era," says Aviel Rubin, technical director at Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "More extreme measures are needed."

Even these gated communities will require ever-tougher anti-spam technology -- and that is bound to slow communications. In an era of virus-generated mail, for example, it will be crucial to distinguish between machine- and human-generated mail. Perhaps the sender will have to answer a question to gain access to your inbox.

Slow and painful? You bet. And a nightmare for e-merchants whose machines send millions of e-mails. Plenty of inconvenient adjustments are ahead en route to this new world. But with spammers spewing viruses and come-ons by the billions, building a tough new Internet may be the only choice.

By Stephen Baker

With Lorraine Woellert in Washington

— With assistance by Lorraine Woellert

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.