Blogging and Spam Update

BloggerOne of the ways that you can tell if a new Internet technology is going to be successful is to look for skepticism. When people begin to say the hype exceeds the reality, it means we are on the way toward the reality exceeding the hype. I am not referring to new business models that are going to make water run uphill, but rather to fundamental technologies such as the Internet itself, the Web, Java, Linux, WiFi, and others. All of those were discounted in the early days. Blogging has now entered the phase when we can be sure it will be enormously successful and change the fundamentals of how information is written, distributed, syndicated, and archived. How do I know? A recent story by The Associated Press proclaimed that "Blogging still infrequent, study finds". The study found that somewhere between2 percent and 7 percent of adult Internet users in the United States are bloggers. The implication of the story was that "only" 2-7 percent of Internet users were blogging. I find the 2-7 percent number extremely encouraging.

In 1994, the number of people using the Internet — as a percentage of the world’s population — rounded to zero. Today there somewhere north of 500 million users. If "only" two percent of them were blogging that would be 10 million people. I think that is an extraordinary number. And "only" about 10 percent update their blogs daily. Only? How many authors update books they have written? It takes more than a year to get a book out the door. If one million people are updating their point of view daily using blogs, that too is extraordinary. We are at the early stages of something really big.

I think we are at the early stages of something really big with spam too. I have written quite a big about this before, so I will just summarize my view and update you on where I see things going. I see no possibility of spam legislation working. The legislation is well intentioned, spam is truly a huge problem, but it just won’t work. I see little possibility of the "Do Not Spam" registry working, partly because of the complexity of the management and security issues that would have to be addressed and partly because of the "exceptions" that would get baked into the legislation. I do see technology working and I do see enforcement of existing laws working. There are various existing laws about fraud and activities with minors. A man was sentenced last week to 2 1/2 years in prison for registering misleading domain names on the Internet that guided children searching for popular sites like Disneyland to pornography instead.

In addition to enforcing existing laws, we must utilize spam-fighting technology, and begin the process to re-design the way email works. There are many short term technology areas that can make a huge impact on the spam problem. Internet service providers (ISP’s) can do a lot more than they have been doing and it is encouraging to see that the big players have started working together. This will surely have a positive impact. At the consumer level there are numerous solutions out there, such as Cloudmark’s Spamnet which "catches" millions of spam emails for it’s users every day. The other good news on the technology front is that venture capitalists and the technology whizzes of the world are engaged. Startup companies are focused on spam elimination as a significant business opportunity. Venture capital funding is flowing to spam-oriented companies and we can expect to see continuous improvement in the capabilities of the technology that they create. Computer scientists around the world are energized by the challenge of beating the spammers. Creative solutions are beginning to emerge and we can expect to see many of them become commercialized.

After a number of announcements at the RSA Conference a week or so ago, one story proclaimed that we have reached the point that " mark(s) the beginning of the end of spam as we know it". Most of the announcements had to do with authentication schemes. The basic idea is to allow a recipient to know that an email in their inbox came from a real person at a real address. Much work remains to be done but the idea is a sound one.

Long term, the way in which email works needs to be re-engineered. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has formed a research group called the Anti-Spam Research Group (ASRG) to come up with creative and profound changes in the way email works at the core. The ASRG focuses on "the problem of unwanted email messages, loosely referred to as spam" and their premise is that an individual or organization should be able to "express consent or lack of consent for certain communication and have the architecture support those desires". The ASRG plans to investigate the feasibility of a new architecture for email that "allows different systems to be plugged in to provide different pieces of the solution".

I am sure the solution will include some form of authentication (as I have argued before). Once the real identity of an email sender is rendered explicit you have a lot more options for how to treat that email. (There are numerous other benefits from digital ID’s beyond reducing spam). I am optimistic about the long term fix but, needless to say, what is being undertaken here is enormously complex and it will take time. To get the protocol changes adopted as a global standard and then be globally implemented will take years.

In the meantime, the technologists are making great progress in reducing spam. The amount of spam is still enormous but the amount of it actually reaching our inboxes (for those using technology tools) is declining.