Spam cure takes a back seat

Far from devising ways to solve the issue of unsolicited bulk email clogging up inboxes, panelists at a debate on spam at ComNet in Washington, D.C., Wednesday couldn’t even agree on how to define the problem.

“There are levels of permission,” says Ben Isaacson, executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing, a subsidiary of the Direct Marketing Association. “You buy something from a retailer and they have permission to contact you. If you say you don’t want it, then they should stop.”

But that idea didn’t fly with other panelists who argued that bulk commercial email should only be sent when it has been requested, and when that request has been verified.

“If I want things, I’m perfectly capable of asking for them,” says Kelly Thompson, who until last summer was a senior manager at MAPS and now is standards and practices manager with Mindshare Design Inc. of San Francisco. “I shouldn’t have to say no. No more … If you send it and I didn’t ask for it, it’s spam.”

Yesterday’s debate highlighted the crossfire between antispam activists and bulk emailers who see the Internet as an inexpensive marketing tool, and an alternative to paying big bucks to send fliers through snail mail. Much like the Internet community at large, everyone on the panel agreed that spam is a big problem, reportedly accounting for as much as 50 percent of an ISPs email traffic flow. Spam, which often is advertising online pornography or get-rich-quick schemes, frequently forces ISPs to add hardware and technicians to deal with the increased traffic flow and the increase in customer complaint calls about the deluge of spam.

“The real concern is that the growing volume is causing people to distrust email and to distrust engaging in online commerce,” says Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer at San Jose ePrivacy Group, and co-founder of CAUCE, which is a group focused on finding a legislative solution to spam. “That distrust will kill email and the Internet faster than anything else.”

And the antispammers say that kind of threat calls for action. And since there is no standards or policing body that sets email regulations for the selling of email addresses, the sending of unsolicited bulk email or opt-in or opt-out specifications, some have taken it upon themselves to attack the problem head on.

Groups like MAPS, SpamCop and Spamhaus formed to set their own policies and throw offenders of those policies on blackhole lists. Analysts say as many as 20 per cent to 30 per cent of ISPs use those blacklists to block email and IP traffic from addresses on those lists.

MAPS, unlike some other anti-spammers, has a policy to notify businesses before putting them on its blackhole list. Margie Arbon, a MAPS spokeswoman, said in a previous interview that the group receives 100 complaints a day, 50 of which they describe as legitimate.

Critics of the antispammers, like Todd Pelow, CEO of online marketer, say legitimate businesses doing legitimate work are getting caught up in those blacklists and they’re being damaged by it.

“We abide by all the laws. We’re not trying to hurt anyone,” says Pelow, who describes spam as bulk email that fraudulently solicits users or is sent to people with no prior business relationship to the sender. “We’re young and we’re learning all sorts of things. We’re not going to be dictated to by someone who tries to tell us what to do.”

Thompson, however, was quick to argue that the antispammers are given the authority to set rules and policies by the ISPs that subscribe to their services.

Panelists generally agreed that the final answer will be multipronged. Stopping, or at least lessening spam, will come from a combination of federal legislation, the education of consumers and commercial marketers and better filters.