Fixing the E-Mail Mess

The practical implications of fighting spam with spam are staggering.

In our February 17 issue we published a cover story on the e-mail mess, in which we examined the problems people are having with spam and viruses. Despite the recent passage of the federal CAN-SPAM legislation and the updating of a number of antispam tools, the problem has only gotten worse in the past few months.

To get to my mailbox, a message has to go through three antispam filters—one on the server, one built into Microsoft Outlook, and a third-party antispam product. Yet more and more spam is getting through. Even worse, the spam is becoming more dangerous, as some messages contain identity theft schemes and e-mail worms.

Why the Easy Answers Dont Work. Since that article appeared, Ive received a number of e-mail messages from readers who think they have ways to stop spam once and for all. The most common suggestion is that legislation will solve the problem, but I think CAN-SPAM has proved that it wont. Despite a few high-profile prosecutions under the law, the overall level of spam hasnt dropped. I was in favor of CAN-SPAM, if only because a federal law made more sense than lots of state laws. But the idea that any one law can stop spammers is hopeless.

Another group of readers think that a whitelist of acceptable senders combined with a challenge/response mechanism is the only real way to solve the problem. This approach works for individuals who want e-mail only from certain individuals. But it doesnt work for organizations that want to hear from potential customers. And this method is far from ideal if you want to get e-mail newsletters or legitimate notifications from companies with which you do business.