Why We Havent Stopped Spam

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2007-09-10 Print this article Print

Several years ago when Bill Gates declared that the spam problem would be solved within two years, he appeared to be thinking of SMTP authentication as the heart of that solution. I wouldnt have said what he said, but I was pretty optimistic too. Not anymore. The overwhelming power of inertia seems too much for any solution to take on. People just wont stand for the inconveniences that fixing spam would bring. SMTP e-mail errors these days are much more often malicious than informative. Click here to read more. Bill and I may have learned our lessons, but theres a long tradition of smart people looking at the spam problem and deciding that it would be easy to fix if only they were in charge. Theres a good example of this on last weeks Wall Street Journal op-ed page, of all places.
The article, entitled "Youve Got Spam," is by Jonathan Koomey, Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson. (Sorry, only a stub of it is online; you need to be a WSJ subscriber to read the whole thing.)
According to their bios at the bottom of the article, theyre all respected academics at respected institutions, but theres no indication that they know their way around e-mail. Koomeys field is energy. Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson are involved in information studies, but not of the technology itself, and they have made an error that shows their perspective is a little too high-level: They assume that someone is actually in charge of the Internet, and specifically of e-mail. Their paper suggests combining two old ideas into one that they hope will be greater than the sum of the parts. One is DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail), a sender authentication scheme originally from Yahoo and Cisco that is widely respected, even by me. But its been around for years in usable form and is not all that widely used. The second idea is "sender bonds." The idea here is that the sender of a message attaches a payment of some sort, typically pennies, to the message. Recipients can then claim the money; its sort of the flip side of those Web pages that force you to watch a full-screen ad before viewing the article. The combination idea is to say that any messages that fail authentication must have the bond. You could continue to send your e-mail unauthenticated and without a bond and, the authors argue, people would ignore it and technology could block it as a rule. You could use authentication at a low cost but with a loss of anonymity. You could use bonds and maintain anonymity but at a cost in dollars. You could do both for the highest level of assurance. Page 2: Why We Havent Stopped Spam

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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