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Anti-spam crusader takes his fight to the people

The owner of a small Internet service provider is fed up and he's not going to take it anymore. The target of his ire: spammers.

"Lose weight fast!"

"Make money online!"

"See Britney naked!"

Recognize any of these e-mail subject lines? They're just a few of the marketing slogans found in the barrage of unsolicited commercial e-mails, or spam, sent to Internet users everyday. They're also some of the unwelcome e-mails that Daniel V. Klein, the outspoken proprietor of a small Internet service provider, aims to stop.

Klein, who has worked as an IT consultant since 1974, was on hand at a recent USENIX system administrators' conference in Philadelphia attempting to debunk the constitutional arguments that safeguard spam.

In his 90-minute presentation, Klein laid out his case that spammers are not protected by the First Amendment, that spam constitutes theft and that it's time for civil legislation that will put an end to unsolicited commercial e-mail.

 Finding the best spam filter

Spammers are highly adaptive to the technologies designed to weed their messages out of a network. The best spam filters, analysts say, are the ones with the ability to adapt right along with them.

David Brussin, chief technology officer at the Paoli, Penn.-based research firm ePrivacy Group, says, the most effective spam filters are the ones that look at the patterns and attributes that emerge in the bodies of junk e-mail, such as headers and spacing, rather than the words themselves. The filters then make decisions to block or admit the mail based on those attributes.

Here's a listing of some of the newer spam filters on the market:

  • BorderWare's MXtreme Mail Firewall filters unwanted spam via source addresses, while adding a way to stop potential exploits of cookies used in Microsoft Outlook Express.
  • Finjan Software's SurfinGate 7.0 for Email includes McAfee antivirus scanning along with Finjan's in-house technology for content scanning, antispam and a new feature called watermarking. Watermarking allows people to check information in the header of a document to determine if anyone has tampered with it.
  • ActiveState's PureMessage 3.0 allows administrators to filter spam and viruses with a Web-based administration console, enhanced spam identification and management functionality, and the McAfee anti-virus engine.
  • Cloudmark's Authority uses Bayesian logic, based on predictability, to identify unwanted messages by their structure rather than by their domains or keywords.

"Spam steals my time. Because time is money, spam steals my money," Klein told the crowd. "We have to eliminate spam."

The scope of the problem

Research indicates that spam now makes up the majority of e-mail sent over the Internet each year. Jupiter Research estimates that the average e-mail user currently gets 42 unwelcome sales pitches a day, and the firm says that number will rise to 70 by 2007. MessageLabs, a vendor of e-mail filters, reports that spam accounted for 30% of all e-mail sent in November, a smaller number than some other recent estimates.

Recent reports, however, have suggested that spam doesn't plague business users to the same degree that it hits personal in-boxes.

ISPs bear much of the brunt of the problem because they are the ones forced to pay for the servers that hold the messages and the filters that weed them out. Klein, whose ISP serves about 100 clients, says these costs are inevitably passed on to the consumer.

From July 28, 2002, to Oct. 16, 2002, Klein says his ISP was host to more than 237,000 spam messages, an average of one message every 29 seconds. For larger providers, the problem presents an even bigger challenge. It has been reported that 1 billion pieces of spam make it through Hotmail's filters and into users' inboxes each day; plus it can be assumed that plenty of other sales pitches are sent that don't get through.

"My definition of a good morning is one where I don't get any new spam in the amount of time it takes me to read my old spam," Klein said.

The tides may be turning in favor of ISPs, however. Earlier this month, a court awarded America Online nearly $7 million in damages from a marketing firm that sent junk e-mail to its members.

The constitutional argument against spam

Some organizations and civil libertarians, including the Cato Institute, have argued that vendors have a right to send unsolicited commercial e-mail under the First Amendment. They say legislation passed to regulate the torrent of spam could cause a ripple effect, making it easier to obstruct the flow of legitimate, solicited business e-mail and perhaps even free speech itself. A better solution, they say, is to refrain from posting your e-mail address on the Internet, set up junk e-mail boxes and continue using e-mail filters.

In his speech at the USENIX conference, Klein, who acknowledges that he's not a lawyer, took issue with the argument that spam is protected free speech. While the Constitution does in fact guarantee freedom of speech, of the press and of expression, it does not guarantee an audience, he said.

"You can say what you want, but I don't have to listen and, more importantly, I don't have to pay for what you're saying," he said. "I can ignore TV commercials, billboards, newspapers and magazine ads, but I can't ignore spam. I must deal with it in order to delete it."

Offering a solution

Klein told the audience that, while it might be difficult to write, what is needed is a civil law making it expensive to send spam. Violators of the law would be forced to pay fines of up to $500 per offense. Furthermore, he suggested a national database of e-mail users that lists their commercial e-mail preferences. Vendors would have to check their e-mail lists against the database to be sure they weren't sending any unsolicited e-mail. People who don't enter their preferences in the database would continue to be subject to spammers.

Admittedly, Klein said, the idea isn't perfect, because some spammers could send their e-mail from foreign countries where U.S. laws carry no weight. For those companies, he said, e-mail filters could continue to turn away the mail.

"Advertising is not bad," Klein said. "The problem is unregulated, unlimited, uncontrolled advertising."


What should be done to curtail spam? Sound off in the Solaris discussion forum.

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It's an interesting argument, trying to legislate away spam via fines. But it's hard to have things both ways. Klein says that one way to protect ourselves from spam is to have a database of preferences for everyone. But that means EVERYONE on every ISP around the globe. I think that's unreasonable. Further, what if I want to drum up business by sending out unsolicited emails. Is that spam or is it justified communication?

Figuring out what's protected and what's annoying is probably as ticklish as figuring out what is p*rn and what is not. Tough battle.




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