Spam, efforts to fight it, both on the rise

The increasing pain of dealing with unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail, commonly known as spam, is prompting new moves to stamp out the unwanted messages. But industry experts warned this week that proposed legislative approaches to the spam problem won’t likely succeed without the aid of corporate users.

Some service providers have had enough. For example, Fairport, N.Y.-based PaeTec Communications Inc. last week said it had disconnected a direct e-mail marketing company from its broadband network after a New York appeals court overturned an injunction that had prevented it from doing so.

And late last month, San Mateo, Calif.-based UltraDNS Corp., which manages Internet domains and directories for companies, called for the creation of an industry consortium to lobby for the passage of antispam legislation.

But until businesses spell out out the true costs of the spam that bombards their internal networks, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to craft useful legislation, said Ray Everett-Church, co-founder and counsel of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email.

“The largest challenge in fighting for sound antispam legislation is getting the involvement of major corporations,” said Everett-Church, whose organization advocates for such measures.

Most companies don’t want to disclose what spam costs them on the receiving end, said Michele Rubenstein, a board member of the EMA Forum within The Open Group consortium in San Francisco. The EMA Forum is a group of users and vendors that addresses messaging technology issues.

“A lot of people are reluctant to admit that kind of information,” Rubenstein said. “It’s kind of like admitting your network has been hacked.”

Raymond Huff, president of Trans Pacific Stores Ltd. in Lakewood, Colo., said he was able to stem the influx of spam three months ago by limiting the publication of employees’ e-mail addresses on the Internet. But since then, the spam problem has gotten “five times worse” for the convenience store operator, he said.

The incidence of spam is doubling every six months, according to David Ferris, an analyst at Ferris Research Inc. in San Francisco.

Data from Brightmail Inc. backs up that claim: the San Francisco-based company said its antispam software measured 4.3 million spam blasts last month, up from 1.7 million in October.

UltraDNS CEO Ben Petro said the removal of spam from its network cost more than US$300,000 in lost revenue last month, because some customers were blocked from sending mail to some domains. Petro said UltraDNS is targeting California and Delaware for possible state-level laws against spam, since so many companies are incorporated in those states.

Two bills that would set federal antispam provisions have already been introduced in the U.S. Senate this year. But Everett-Church said those measures could actually “legitimize some of the most egregious spam being sent.”

Any legislation that gives individuals and companies the ability to fight the onslaught of spam “would be very welcome,” said a spokesman for Kmart Corp. in Troy, Mich. “Even if it scares off 10 percent of the [spammers], that would help.”

Kmart, which acts as an Internet service provider through its LLC unit in San Francisco, takes “extensive steps” to avoid spamming customers, the spokesman said. But the spam that they receive from other sources “dilutes our message,” he said. “At the end of the day, it hurts our bottom line.”