The challenge spam poses

Professional Perspectives

I really, really don’t like spam (bulk unsolicited commercial e-mail). It floods my inbox, costing me time and money. It’s irresponsible and unprofessional. But there are millions happy to be irresponsible and unprofessional if they can make a buck. It can’t be allowed to go on.

Fundamental to being a professional is a commitment to being trustworthy in all of your professional dealings. Clients and employers should be able to trust your competence, addressed by demonstrating mastery of standards of practice.

Your intentions should also be trustworthy – this is addressed by a commitment to a code of professional ethics. Professionals must commit to putting the interests of clients and employers above their own, and to putting the public interest above all other interests. It’s essential to having trustworthy professional intentions.

Organizations such as the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) ought to be taking action against members who participate in spam. There is no doubt that sending spam is against the public interest. It’s unprofessional and should not be tolerated from professionals.

The spammer pays almost nothing to send a single piece of spam. My cost to remove spam far exceeds the cost of sending it. There are no natural limits on the amount of spam that gets sent. We need to find effective ways to fight back.

Making it illegal to send spam may be emotionally satisfying, and may win votes, but it’s unlikely to be effective. It may be easy to recognize spam, but a precise legal definition isn’t that easy. Even if the law can correctly define spam, it’s hard to have laws apply across international boundaries.

One of the serious problems is that the spammer can hide behind the anonymity tolerated on the Internet. Under the current rules, there is no check to verify that an e-mail message has correctly identified its source. There are several technical proposals aimed at changing this.

With the cloak of anonymity removed, the major e-mail services could block all e-mail from IP address groups which tolerate the sending of spam. The owners of those IP address groups would be forced to take action. The cost of sending spam would go up.

I hope the rules will change, and that e-mail servers will only pass on messages with correct IP source information. In the short term, I’ve had surprising luck with the open source POPfile program ( I’m training it to identify what I call spam. And it’s learning.

In the longer term, we need to remove the cloak of anonymity from e-mail messages – that will give the victims of spam a chance to fight back.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected].

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