Private-industry folks always talk about the wonders of competition, even if they dont really like it much. Im betting well get better anti-spam work done if we encourage the players to lay waste to one another rather than waiting for peace with honor to be declared.
Nothing focuses the engineering mind like competition, especially if after the contracts are awarded, the losers may find themselves out of work.
The news story that got me thinking about this is a report that the IETF shut down a working group on mail authentication because the various interests couldnt find enough to agree upon.
While the IETF has done tremendous good work over the years, perhaps the Internet has become so competitive that the collegial methods of the past must give way, at least on something as complex—and potentially lucrative—as canning spam.
Heres my idea: The industry either conjures up an acceptable anti-spam solution by a specified deadline, or the federal government will impose its own solution. And the industry can do this however it likes, either with a single entry or with various groups and corporate organizations competing on their own.
Regardless of the competitions format, the eventual decision would be made by the Federal Trade Commission, the consumer watchdog agency that has already threatened a government solution if the private sector cant develop one of its own. Of course, the FTC would have to select an expert panel to help make the final selection, but that shouldnt be too difficult.
Given that no matter what the topic, private industry would rather have just about anything than a government mandate, I think a federal anti-spam technology competition might be just the thing to bring the private sector together against an even more important enemy than spam: federal regulation.
Under the threat of federal oversight, my guess is that the doctrinaire battles between open source and Microsoft, and between the various authentication schemes, will be put aside. Whenever these industry groups come to loggerheads, the solution will be easy to focus on: Someone stands up and reminds the participants, "Ladies and gentlemen, if we dont do this, the government will."
The unsaid addendum to this—at least not said where the feds can hear—will be, "And regardless of how badly we mess things up, the feds would only make things worse."
Actually, I am not sure thats the case, but if the thought makes corporate engineers more productive, so be it. On the other side, if you assemble the best brains the government can muster from the public, academic and private sectors into a federal task force, you might just be amazed at what could be accomplished.
One agency that could handle the task of organizing the development effort is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the former National Bureau of Standards. Alternately, the Defense Department or, God forbid, the spook agencies might manage the program. Perhaps a private contractor such as RAND or SRI might be the best choice.
I am not proposing that there should be a single anti-spam solution, just that there should be an anti-spam foundation that would be expanded upon as needed by vendors and customers. Think of this as anti-spam plumbing built into the Internet and available as a platform for further innovation.
Spam is clearly a major problem, and while the private sector is the preferred solution provider, the debate seems to be slowing things down. The proper role of the federal government is to help organize the anti-spam effort, and establishing a competition might be the best way to accomplish this.
Let the best solution win.