Last week, I published a video holding AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo's feet to the fire for not working together to put an end to spam. Because of how many global e-mail users are covered by them alone, if those four e-mail service providers agreed to some common approaches to addressing the growing spam problem, then the rest of the e-mail vendors and services in the world would have no choice but to go along. As a result, spam might not be killed altogether, but it would probably be reduced to a trickle. More importantly, legitimate e-mail that's getting trapped in your junk mail folders (perhaps not ever getting viewed) would probably arrive in your inbox instead. Wouldn't that be nice? And maybe --- just MAYBE -- you could trust an e-mail that says its from your bank, eBay, or PayPal (not suspecting it to be a phisher).
In that post, I noted how, back in late 2002 when I first started looking into the problem and began calling for some sort of cross-industry effort (I eventually started something called JamSpam), the major e-mail tech providers said that they’d find a way to curb the problem. Yet today, the situation is markedly worse. There's more spam than ever. More spammers than ever. And, more mail that should be showing up in our inboxes is getting falsely classified as spam, in some cases never finding its way to us (I show this in the video).
In response to that post, ZDNet reader Richard Flude recalled that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told the BBC back in January 2004 that "Spam will be a thing of the past in two years' time." I searched for that story and sure enough, the BBC's Tim Weber quotes Gates as having promised that (right under the headline) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Yet, here we are nearly four years later and we're worse off than we've ever been.
In fairness to Microsoft and Gates, I don't think any company has done as much both on and "off" the technology playing field (in other words, in the court systems) to combat spam. Microsoft's lawyers have been responsible for bringing some of the most prolific spammers to justice where few others have. But, despite all that Microsoft has done, other spammers remain undeterred (and, given how little actual spam traffic is impacted when one of these spammers is brought to justice, the main point of such legal action is deterrence).
This is why I'm asking for everyone with a stake in the problem (and that's all of us) to do as I said they should do on the Charlie Rose show back in June 2003. The video (from YouTube) appears below and Rose's segment on spam in which I was one of his guests starts about half way through the show (at the 29:30 mark).
As you can see at 52:40 into the show, I said,
Most of the antispam activities are either unilateral (one company going out there and fighting spam in its own way), maybe a little bilateral work -- one or two or maybe three companies getting together and trying to come up with an alliance that will stop it. But there's not enough multilateral activity. And what I mean by that is that you don't see enough collaboration between all those communities that I just identified [ISPs, anti-spam solution providers, e-mail solution providers, etc.] in a way that produces material that educates end users, produces guidelines for legislators on how to pass laws that are not too subjective and gets down to tests of what is and what isn't spam and what is and what is not permission.
That's the whole premise of JamSpam which is the organization I'm trying to set up. Which is to say let's bring all of these communities together. Let's take a big collective deep breath. And before we continue deploying the techniques we're deploying which are actually getting us into trouble (passing laws that are impractical or undermining other laws, setting up other laws that undermine other technologies), let's all look at the problem very holistically -- everybody together -- and start to look at the different laws and solutions that are being considered and figure out if one of those laws or solutions that we're just about to deploy will exacerbate the problem as opposed to eliminate it.
During that show, I called for exactly what I'm still calling for: a cross industry effort that yields interoperable standards for e-mail security --- standards that the major solution providers embrace in order to ensure their ubiquity.
In Davos, Weber reported Gates as predicting that "spam would be killed through the electronic equivalent of a stamp, also known as payment at risk." I'm not here to say whether that is or isn't a good idea. But clearly, that idea hasn't gotten any traction.
I'm here to say that whatever ideas the solution providers had five years ago have yet to result in the abatement that we we've been promised. At the very least, these ideas are no better than the idea that I proposed then and am still proposing now: Stop getting rich on the problem, work together, decide on some royalty-free standards (whatever interoperable standards are necessary), deploy them, and move on. Spam is not and should not be treated as a business opportunity. It is beholden on everyone with a stake in the Internet's viability to come up with a common solution rather than one that proves advantageous to one party, or another. I don't have a formal petition. But, if you want to send the same message to AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, then answer "Yes" to the question below.
And just to make sure that there are no excuses, if AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo need someone to project manage this, they can let me know and I'll see to it that this project gets managed in a way that produces results.