Spam: No quick victory

Waiting for an end to the unwanted e-mail plague? Get ready to wait some more. Pat says there's no magic bullet that'll kill this beast. Rather, it'll take a combination of forces that are just now lining up.

Technology has conditioned us to expect quick results. It played a preeminent role in bringing the major hostilities in Iraq to a mercifully fast end. It allowed scientists from around the world to collaborate, then isolate and identify the SARS virus in just two weeks, rather than the two or more years it might have taken a decade or so ago.

Yet, for now, technology seems wholly inadequate to the task of taming its own awful offspring. I'm referring to the blight of unsolicited e-mail better known as spam. No, it's not a life and death issue, like a war or epidemic, and I don't mean to imply that it is. But no one can disagree that spam is a time-consuming and costly problem that gets worse by the day.

Lost productivity
There's no shortage of alarming statistics. By one estimate, this past March witnessed some 6.7 million spam mailings, double the number a year ago. By another, spam now accounts for some 45 percent of all e-mail. By a third, spam will cost U.S. companies some $10 billion in lost productivity and IT management overhead.

But who needs numbers when you have your own inbox? It's gotten to the point where spam outnumbers the legitimate e-mail I get. Even worse, I have to make sure my kids aren't looking over my shoulder when I check my office e-mail from home, for fear of exposing them to one of the crassly graphic mailings I don't want but get.

We're at the point where somber experts such as TRUSTe's Fran Maier predict that spam literally threatens to "kill the killer app" we know and love as e-mail. ZDNet's own anti-spam champion, David Berlind, concurs, claiming that we may be headed to an "irretrievable breakdown" of the Internet e-mail system as we know it.

I'm citing both Maier and Berlind not just for their dire predictions but because both appear in a new ZDNet Webcast, Spam: 2003 Progress Update, which I encourage you to watch because it provides such a clear snapshot of the issue. It requires registration and about 17 minutes of your time.

Keep complaining
For those of you not inclined to watch it, allow me to tell you what I took away from it and to update you on some recent developments in the news:

  • A multipronged anti-spam effort is taking shape. E-mail giant AOL just filed suit against 10 spammers. Congress is taking another stab at anti-spam legislation. Industry groups, like the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Email Service Provider Coalition, and ZDNet's own JamSpam Consortium, are each examining or proposing various non-legislative solutions to fight spam.

  • No single solution will work. The courts can gavel spammers with civil penalties. Congress can fine or jail them. Industry groups can find ways to block, authenticate, or otherwise filter bulk mailers. But none of those steps alone will be enough.

  • In fact, these diverse efforts represent part of the problem. There are a huge number of constituencies--users, companies, ISPs, e-mail services, software makers, message senders (like ZDNet), direct marketers, Congress, the courts, regulatory agencies, and others--with a stake in this issue. They have such divergent interests that, though a coordinated fight is needed, it will be nearly impossible to achieve.

    Thus, I've come to this sober realization: The spam problem will get worse before it gets better. Though technology, governments, businesses, and right-minded industry groups will prevail, it's going to be a good long while--not weeks, not months, but years--before they do.

    In the meantime, individual users like you and me will have no choice but to do three things: First, we'll need to learn how to safeguard our e-mail addresses and inboxes on our own. Second, we'll need to keep complaining about spam to our companies, ISPs, and e-mail services, knowing that it's not entirely fruitless. And third, we'll just have to keep hitting the delete key.

    Technology may have accustomed us to fast results, but, when it comes to spam, there simply will be no quick victory.

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