Combating Spam

Balance of common sense, basic technology is needed.

In his open e-mail letter "Towards a Spam-free Future," Bill Gates begins his remarks with the development of e-mail in the early 1970s. But when was the first spam message? For that answer, youd have to turn to Brad Templetons Home Page (, and there you would learn that on May 3, 1978, a representative for Digital Equipment sent out an e-mail to ARPAnet users stating in part and in capital letters, "We invite you to come see the 2020 and hear about the DECsystem-20 family at the two product presentations we will be giving in California this month."

Its not in the same league as Samuel Morses first telegram message, "What hath God wrought!" but its better than the pitch letter of most spammers.

At least the Digital machine was a real product.

Now that Gates has elevated fighting spam to the same level as tightening the security of his products, can we really envision a future in which all those pitches, pleas and demands disappear? The answer is no, but there are some approaches that you must look at. Most are based on common sense rather than some startling breakthrough in contextual filtering or artificial intelligence. A good place to start is the concept of challenge and response. Say, as I did, you wanted to make sure that the story about the first spam was true. You send an e-mail to Brad and get a response asking if you are who you say you are. Once you confirm your identity, the discussion continues. No big advance in technology is required.

"Challenge and response, done properly, is feasible because you get only a challenge when you mail somebody youve never mailed before, which is actually moderately rare for most folks, though not perhaps for a reporter or somebody like me," Templeton stated in an e-mail to me.

When I asked several members of the eWEEK Corporate Partner advisory board why theres a sudden interest in fighting spam, the universal answer was that theres a big upsurge in the problem itself. "Remember how they used to say [prebubble bust] that technology often follows the hockey stick curve? It seems that spam is following the same path, and we are entering the exponential-growth phase. This is one bubble that I wouldnt mind seeing popped," said Kevin Baradet, CTO at the S.C. Johnson School of Management at Cornell University.

The common wisdom is that about 70 percent of e-mail these days is unwanted, offensive, untruthful or some combination of all three. Stopping these e-mailers at the source as pending legislation proposes or in the courts as Bill Gates and other industry honchos suggest will be difficult, considering the ease with which spam is created and the international nature of the Web. In one of his more lucid (and sober) moments, my cohort Spencer Katt suggested that spammers should be required to prove their love elixir or super wealth-generator program really works before they can start their mass mailings. That at least would be interesting.

In the meantime, service providers must provide spam blockers and must stop selling mailing lists or allowing their subscribers names to be easily harvested by hackers. Vendors, including Microsoft, need to step up, take responsibility and create e-mail clients that have safety and security as higher priorities than integration and spiffy interfaces. Users, as my co-worker Jim Rapoza recently noted in a column, also have to take responsibility for managing their own e-mail.

At the corporate level, e-mail and spam present technical and social problems. As one Corporate Partner said, "We are responsible for conducting our business in a manner that does not create a hostile atmosphere for the employee. We have received complaints from employees that they even find viewing the subject lines of these messages in their in-box to be offensive and disturbing. If we do not filter these messages, are we liable for promoting a hostile atmosphere?"

Once—younger readers will find this hard to believe—companies and people operated without e-mail. Then e-mail came, with its ease of connection and openness. Now the pendulum is swinging to the middle, where e-mail will be filtered, analyzed and, where appropriate, blocked—as it should be.

Eric Lundquist can be reached at