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Spam Legislation – Whether You Want It Or Not

The Federal Trade Commission spam Forum in Washington this morning was quite ineteresting. The room was packed. Two FTC commissioners spoke — one suggesting caution on any legislative initiatives and the other saying “it can’t hurt”. I think it can hurt and likely will if passed. I spoke on a panel along with seven attorneys. All seven urged Federal legislation. I was a lone voice; speaking out for patience to allow for technology to address the problem.

I am not normally the patient type, but in this case hastily passing legislation is the wrong thing to do. Everyone had good intentions and all agreed, myself included, that the spam problem is reaching epidemic proportions and is having a major negative impact on people’s productivity. The cost is becoming very real. The problem with legislation is that it won’t work and would likely have unintended consequences. I don’t think it is possible to define spam but any legislation will necessarily try to do so. Once “defined” it won’t take long for spammers to work around it and actually validate their legitimacy. I believe there is a long term solution and a short term solution.

Long term, the way in which email works needs to be re-engineered. The technical community is intrigued with this and is actively working the problem through a research group that is part of the Internet Engineering Task Force. I am sure the solution will include some form of authentication (as I have argued before). Once the real identity of an email is rendered explicit you have a lot more options in how to treat that email. (There are numerous other benefits beyond reducing spam). It will take time to get the protocol changes adopted as a global standard and to be implemented. The short term solution, in the meantime, has to be to use anti-spam technology at multiple levels.

Internet service providers (ISPs) can do a lot more than they have been doing. It is encouraging to see in the news last week that AOL, MSN, and Yahoo have started a dialogue. This will surely have a positive impact. Employers can do more also. Numerous companies have technology that can enable the corporate mail servers to block spam or at least flag it as “probable spam” to allow employees to use a filter or rule to delete it automatically if they choose to. At the consumer level there are numerous solutions out there. I personally use Cloudmark’s Spamnet. My 2,000+ spam emails per week mostly all end up in my junk mail folder. I glance through the folder once a week and then delete them. Rarely do I find emails that “false positives”. Maybe one in a thousand. I am more than willing to forgo that one in order to not have to bothered with the thousand.

CBS MarketWatch reported that PC Magazine has studied what you can do about spam. In a test of four “spam slammers,” CloudMark’s SpamNet ($4.99/month subscription) was top rated, followed by Matador 2.0 ($29.95/program), SpamCatcher ($19.95/program), and IHateSpam ($19.95/program), when ranked according to the percent of spam dumped into a quarantine folder. Each of the programs maintains a database of spammers and incorporates users’ feedback on what’s identified as spam to filter e-mails. “Keep in mind, though, that these products are far from perfect. They occasionally block messages they shouldn’t, and if you don’t regularly visit your quarantine, you’ll certainly miss a small percentage of important mail,” the magazine concluded. That has not been the case for me as I mentioned in the prior paragraph. Note: There are many anti-spam programs available in addition to those reviewed. One additional one that I know about is SPAMMfighter.

My epilogue is that we will probably get legislation. You can just feel the momentum in Washington. The political pressures are significant and even though I see little chance of a law working, I also see little chance of avoiding a law. Let’s just hope it doesn’t make things too much worse. Each panelist got 60 seconds on C-Span camera to make our case to congress on what they should write into legislation with their pens. I said “put your pens in the drawer and give technology a little more time”. Legislation won’t work.

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