Search goes on for way to stop spam

The words and phrases used to described spam by people at a Global Internet Project conference today were a lot like the subject lines of pushy e-mails: stark and attention getting.

Spam "imperils the Internet", is "out of control", and is running in volumes that are "staggering". Spam is a burden on businesses, "the pain is real".

Or as Orson Swindle, US Federal Trade commissioner said, spam "keeps getting bigger, even as we increase our efforts to try to curtail it". Swindle warned that this rapid e-mail proliferation could "be an impediment to true realisation of the potential of e-commerce".

The other fear about spam, and one that has typically brought protests from the IT senior executives who make up the Arlington, Virginia-based Global Internet Project, is government regulation.

"I think we would all agree that regulation on the Internet is not a good idea," said John Patrick, a recently retired vice president of Internet technology at IBM. But political leaders, acting out of frustration, might adopt regulations that are "very costly", he said. "I would say the potential [for regulation] is high at this point."

Regulation may already be a foregone conclusion. Eighteen US states have adopted anti-spam laws, and there are several bills pending in Congress. Moreover, the European parliament last month approved an anti-spam law making it illegal to send unsolicited e-mail.

Whether any of these laws will accomplish anything is another question. Internet service providers are playing an ongoing Whack a Mole game with spammers, who continually attempt, with some success, to circumvent efforts to curtail them.

"We're aggressively trying to stop the spam," from its clients, which include Internet service providers, said Robert Rigby, a senior manager at WorldCom's security operations centre. "However, the spam community is just as innovative and just as technically savvy as we are."

One problem that network administrators face is that the spammers, or the "black hats", will readily share techniques among themselves, but corporations won't, Rigby said. "The black hat community has nothing to lose by sharing these technologies," he said.

Enterprises, however, are in the best position to protect their end users because of their ability to use a "multi-layered approach" that can examine incoming e-mails by content, behaviour, addresses and other means, said Randy Shoup, chief architect at Tumbleweed Communications a Californian security vendor.

Regulation is another way to address spam, but Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Seattle-based Amazon.com, warned of one problem created by the leading anti-spam bill in Congress offered by US Senators Conrad Burns (Republican, Montana) and Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon).

That legislation, which would require working return addresses on e-mail, may penalise "inadvertent transgressors", or companies that accidentally send a marketing e-mail to a customer after that customer had requested removal from the e-mail list, Misener said.

Every business "has a strong economic interest not to irritate existing customers", said Misener, but the kinds of punishments imposed against people who send e-mail with fraudulent headers could potentially be applied to companies that inadvertently send out e-mail to customers who don't want it.

Many spam e-mails arrive from other countries, and without a global agreement there was scepticism about the impact regulations would have on reducing spam.

Australia's Government is examining the problem raised by spam, and any solutions are likely o use a variety of approaches, said Keith Besgrove, an official with the Federal Government's National Office for the Information Economy. He said a typical approach for his country would be to look at solutions that could involve legislation, industry codes of best practice and raising awareness.

The Australian Government has had a long-standing policy of a "light touch" regulatory regime with anything to do with communications and online technology, Besgrove said.

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