Save the Mails

By Steve Gillmor  |  Posted 2004-02-05

Save the Mails

Bill Gates comments at last months World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were widely reported. "Two years from now, spam will be solved," Microsofts chairman confidently declared. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I received this news first through my RSS aggregator.

More and more, I find myself avoiding my e-mail client. On the Mac, its called Entourage. On the tablet PC Im testing, its Outlook. The Mac protects me from direct exposure to virus and worm attacks, but not the estimated two-thirds of spam attacks that are launched from these exploits. So I end up wallowing in my own personal denial-of-service attack every time I check my mail.

You know the drill: First, I delete the hieroglyphics, the random explosions of characters more common to an atomic elements table. Next to go is the digital equivalent of those guys on a New York corner whispering, "Check it out," as they try to stuff a flier into your hands. The latest trick is to substitute hyphens or underlines for strategic vowels to avoid the filters, turning my inbox into an undulating anagram word game generator.

Now the triage takes a strategic turn: I decide whether to merely delete spam marked as such by the junk filter or click on the "This is not junk mail" link. This produces a requestor with a multipart Hobsons choice: "Add sender to Address Book," "Create a mailing list rule," "Classify all messages from the senders domain as not junk," or my current favorite, "Just classify this message as not junk."

What will that do for me? "Other messages like this one may also be classified as junk mail," says the handy explanation. OK, so other messages that look amazingly like this one will again be flagged in the same way so that I can go do this again the next time. Works for me.

Next page: Industrial Spam

Industrial Spam

If I havent given up by now, there are always the e-mail newsletters to sift through. I dimly recall why I signed up for many of these in the distant past—often by mistake because I failed to uncheck the auto-subscribe box on a form I was pointed to by a former friends IM about checking this cool video out. Invariably, the video requires RealPlayer, which sets off another blizzard of upgrade e-mail requests while obliterating my media player preferences in the background.

Ive long since stopped trying to unsubscribe from these time-wasters. All that does is tell them youre alive and pushes you to the top of their red-meat list. So I ended up deleting them day by day until it finally occurred to me that I should just write a rule to take care of that. Now the demon has me firmly in its grasp.

Writing a filter is useful the first time; less so when you have to install it on the laptop, at home, and on your wifes, daughters or mistresss machines; useless if you arent allowed to install it on the server by a beleaguered IT; and life-draining when you evaluate the actual information you signed up to receive in the first place.

A brief commercial for RSS: E-mail newsletters were originally attractive because they allowed me to quickly review new stories without having to travel to Web sites to find out if anything interesting had been posted. RSS lets you subscribe to a feed that lets you know only when new content has been posted. Now back to hell.

With my junk filter now reprogrammed, I turn to watching return receipts and bounced mail messages roll in from vendors, developers, PR folk and many others who share one characteristic: I didnt send them anything. Instead, Im getting attacked either by servers responding to spoofed e-mails or by a virus harvesting address book lists on local machines.

This recursive wave of spam-about-spam modulates like earthquake aftershocks. The peculiar personalized nature of many of these address list bombs makes it ever so more annoying, as I receive e-mail from people I havent heard from in years but who unfortunately chose the "Add Sender to Address Book" option. You can pay now or you can pay later.

Next page: Bills Three Wishes

Bills Three Wishes

Now Gates says hes got it figured out. Of the three basic solutions he described at Davos, one seems workable, another unrealistic, and the third is not gonna happen. Establishing a human challenge as the requirement for authenticating with a recipient is essentially the RSS subscription model on a peer-to-peer scale.

Solving a computationally expensive puzzle before sending would make it prohibitively expensive for mass-mailers, but it would likely force legitimate one-to-many communications off e-mail to RSS and P2P transports anyway, leaving e-mail increasingly irrelevant. Not that theres anything wrong with that.

But Bills heart is with his digital stamp idea, also known as "payment by risk." The idea is to establish a small payment by the sender for personal e-mail, with a sliding scale for unknown senders. This approach is similar to the computational approach of driving up broadcast costs, but it does nothing to stop the traffic on the network from virus-stimulated spam attacks.

Of course, the major obstacle is a political one: No government is likely to hand its post office role (and revenue) over to Microsoft, and previous ventures in the directory arena (Passport) have quickly been shredded by Silicon Valley competitors. But I fear an even more ominous result of that scenario, where Microsofts DRM strategies extend outward from metering SMTP, POP3 and IMAP to controlling all incoming and outgoing peer-to-peer ports at the hardware and network levels.

Paranoid? Yes. But providing a solution that inevitably leads to migration to other transports will inevitably pollute those pastures, leading to more "big" solutions with draconian effects. Yet I agree with Bills time estimate of two years—thats how long it will take for the convergence of RSS and social networks to produce a network ecology based on the efficiencies of aggregated micro-content filtering by dynamic peers.

Discuss This in the eWEEK Forum Messaging & Collaboration Center Editor Steve Gillmor can be reached at

Check out eWEEK.coms Messaging and Collaboration Center at for more on micro-content and collaboration technologies.

Rocket Fuel