Wireless Carriers Need to Step Up the Spam Battle

Wireless carriers are finally starting to encourage data use, but they're doing little to discourage spam. To Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin that's a real problem given the poor suitability of current leading solutions.

The only thing worse than spam is wireless spam. Spam defeats everything that a good wireless experience should be: convenient, controlled and relevant.

Furthermore, fighting spam has special challenges on a handheld or advanced handset. The first of these is that the e-mail client is not Outlook, Microsofts extensible and popular program for which many client-side spam-fighting tools have been developed. Some are also available for Outlook Express, the even more popular e-mail client that Microsoft is phasing out. However, few if any tools are available for the kinds of proprietary clients often seen on the leading mobile platforms of PalmSource, Microsoft, Symbian and Good. That eliminates innovative approaches like the collaborative spam-fighting service SpamNet.

Two of the leading methods for fighting spam today are Bayesian filters and challenge/response. Most Bayesian filters are client-side, because their action is based on the large volume of mail that youve already received. If you cant process the mail before it reaches your wireless device, youll get all the spam thats delivered.

The challenge/response method forces senders to respond to a test to prove that they are not spam-sending computers. This is a problem in the wireless world, where senders may drop the connection before they get a chance to reply to the challenge message. Anti-spam service provider Mailblocks recently introduced a new version of its service that presumes innocence for most senders, but it wont work with most native wireless clients and would require a pretty competent browser for its Web interface.

Meanwhile, if youre not annoyed by the inconvenience of spam, you may want to watch its impact on the price you pay for cellular data. In 2001, NTT DoCoMo allegedly spent about $8 million to alleviate the spam problem. Among its ineffective campaigns was suggesting that users change their e-mail addresses. Even if youre not paying by the minute or by the megabyte, the cost of carrying spam is reflected in your wireless data bill.

The three largest U.S. ISPs—AOL, MSN and EarthLink—have all stepped up their spam-fighting rhetoric, but by and large their efforts fall short of leading approaches or require proprietary clients. Still, at least these ISPs recognize the spam problem, In contrast, most U.S. wireless carriers have yet to become seriously involved in the spam fight.

Ultimately, carriers will have to do more to remove spam to ensure the satisfaction of wireless e-mail. While the volume of e-mail that they carry today pales in comparison to wired ISPs, their costs for each unsolicited packet is many times greater. E-mail may be the killer wireless application, but spam could turn it into a killjoy.

Have you found any solutions for managing spam on the road? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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