Joining forces to send spammers a message

Dealing with spam can be quite a daunting task.

While spam filters are a common antidote – there’s always the risk of legitimate e-mails getting deleted along with the spurious and unwanted.

Blue Security, a Menlo, Calif-based anti-spam start-up with a research facility in Israel, offers an alternative approach – one based on the strength of numbers. “If people join together to form a community to let spammers know they’re not interested, there’s a chance we can change the spam economy and equation,” says Eran Reshef, CEO of Blue Security.

The company doesn’t use filters or keywords or algorithms or other complex methods.

The fundamental premise is simple: enforce your right to opt out, en masse, as a community. “Every time you receive spam, we send back an opt-out request to the spammer,” says Reshef. “Unlike other companies that remove spam after it’s sent to you, we actually work with spammers to get you off their lists.”

People who sign up for Blue Security’s service install their Blue Frog software. When they receive spam, users click on the icon and report it to the company. Blue Security analyzes the e-mail to ensure it really is spam and identifies the originating Web site.

“There are many things spammers can hide. But if they’re selling viagara, they need to provide the Web site [where it can be bought]. It is the one thing they can’t hide or fake,” says Reshef.

Blue Security sends opt-out requests to spammers on behalf of its members. “We’re simply standing up for our right not to be bothered,” says Reshef. The company also takes action by reporting spamming violations in aggregated format to regulatory bodies, law enforcement, and ISPs. In addition, Blue Security notifies spammers of their violations and sends reminders urging them to comply.

Members are automatically added to the company’s do-not-intrude registry. The encrypted registry can be downloaded free of charge, so spammers can delete everyone on the list to avoid hassles.

Blue Security is sending a loud, clear message to spammers: we will bother you right back. “Spammers will think: We have a bunch of people who end up complaining a lot every time they get spam. Why bother? We won’t make money from them – best to just delete them.”

The company says about a third of its members are already reporting a 50 per cent reduction in spam. Sending e-mail may be cheap, but handling complaints is not so cheap, says Reshef.

Spammers will need to waste time and resources to deal with thousands of complaining messages. “You just increased the spammer’s cost of doing business. Every spammer wants to run his business quietly. The less money he has to spend running away, the better.”

The company says it has accumulated 70,000 registrants since it started up a year ago, mostly comprised of consumers and small businesses. Blue Security’s software is still running in beta, but Reshef says it can apply to large enterprises too. The company is offering its services free to small businesses, organizations and Internet e-mail domain owners until March 31, 2006 to bolster its numbers.

“We need to get critical mass, several hundred thousand members, to make it something the spammers of the world will really be interested in complying with,” says Reshef.

The spammers of the world are already paying attention. Amir Gans, who has been described as the Europe’s second largest spammer by Microsoft, is known to be compliant with Blue Security’s do-not-intrude registry.

“There’s a funny story,” says Reshef. An Israeli reporter arranged a debate between Reshef and Gans in the press about spam. The reporter was disappointed, says Reshef: “Gans showed up, and said, ‘OK, I’ll comply – just hand over the list. I don’t want to send e-mails to people who don’t want them.’ No debate.”

Gans sees himself as an advertising agent working on behalf of small businesses. His reach is global, but 80 per cent of his market is in Israel. “I don’t sell products. I am media. I sell bulk marketing,” he says.

Gans was motivated to comply with Blue Security’s do-not-intrude registry for the same reason any business would: to protect his business reputation. “Yes, it costs money, but it’s worth it,” he says. “I have a full-time technician and one of his jobs is to put all the removal requests into the exclusion list. I can sleep well at night, knowing what I’m doing is as the law says, and I’m removing e-mail that won’t make money.”

There are two basic methods to fight spam, he says. One method used by companies like Symantec, he says, is censorship. “They decide what spam is for [the entire] Internet community. They provide tools to censor e-mails they think are illegitimate, to them. So an ISP advertising to its customers is okay, but if I do it, they call it spam.”

The second approach is to allow anyone to have their online businesses without passing judgment on their products or services, he says – so long as they comply with the law. “There is a basic integrity in Internet business. If someone asks you to remove them from your e-mail list, you should do that.”

Gans believes leaving it to recipients to unsubscribe themselves from thousands of lists is highly impractical. “Blue Security is doing what the US law should have done a few years ago. Until they do that – and it will probably take a year or two – Blue Security will in fact have the US’ do-not-email list in hand.”

Gans urges that people understand his side of the story. The Internet is a neutral medium, he says, that people can use for good or bad. Spam and e-mail advertising are not the same thing, and should not be treated interchangeably. The Internet is an excellent medium for marketing, superior to any other channel. “We get ten times more the response rate than any other medium, TV, radio, Web site, you name it. So long as you maintain the removal list, we get a great response.”

He points out two major advantages to e-mail advertising. Since advertising is relatively cheap, he says, the product itself can be cheaper, which is a major benefit to consumers. And you can reach people when it’s convenient to them, when they’re at home or at work, and they can review merchants’ wares at their leisure, compared with intrusive telemarketing calls in the evening.

“Bulk e-mailing done in accordance with the law will lead to one big thing, lowering the cost to customers of buying things. The economy will widen – small and medium businesses, they don’t have the budgets to advertise on TV, radio and so on. But the Internet is a good product channel,” he says.

Gans stresses that attempts to prohibit spam are doomed to failure. “So long as there are recipients buying things, advertisers will find another way to get into inboxes. You can’t forbid it so only big companies like Microsoft can do it. It is all a cat and mouse game. Prohibition of alcohol in the US created the Mob.”