Why Yahoo's marriage of RSS and e-mail could be an antispam breakthrough

Spam has always been a real hot button for me.  First because of the way unwanted email innundates my various inboxes (the most obvious problem).

Spam has always been a real hot button for me.  First because of the way unwanted email innundates my various inboxes (the most obvious problem).  Second is one of the nasty side effects of our meager attempts (antispam solutions) to stop it: we end up stopping some legitimate mail too (now a major hassle for me).  Third, the need to solve the problem has resulted in business opportunities some vendors and ISPs would rather use to their own advantage rather than universally and collaboratively fix (so much for the connection between e-mail and collaboration).  The irreconcilable differences that arose out the IETF's attempt to get all the major players on the same page is real evidence of this sort of greed. 

Approximately three  years ago, I organized the first industry-wide anti-spam summit in hopes of getting all of those in a position to fix the problem to cross-party lines and work together instead of apart on the spam problem.  I called it JamSpam and we held the one day event at CNET's headquarters in San Francisco.   Everybody who obviously mattered (ISPs, inbox service providers, email solution providers, etc.) was there. Even some who on the surface have no connection to the e-mail ecosystem -- like Oracle -- attended as well.

"So what?" you ask. What does this have to do with RSS (as this blog's headline implies).
During one of JamSpam's brainstorming sessions, GroupWise consultant Richard Bliss (who was representing Novell at the time) raised his hand and asked an interesting question.  He asked, "What if e-mail was re-architected so that, instead the keeping e-mail on the recipient's system prior to opening it (the way e-mail basically works today), e-mail was kept on the sender's system?" On the basis that such an architecture -- where users regularly retrieve stuff from other systems on more of a polling basis -- would never fly technically or from a user experience point of view, Bliss was overwhelmingly shut down by everyone in the room. 

I don't know if he remembers that day, but boy, has RSS vindicated Richard Bliss.  While RSS still has a few kinks to work out (like, what happens when you click the RSS button on a Web page), it has clearly proven in the last two years that the architecture Bliss had in mind not only works, but can and will be very widely embraced. Earlier this year, in January, I wrote about how RSS could be the silver bullet against phishing. Then, in May, I covered  the potential applications of RSS beyond some of the basic ones we see today (subscribing to blogs and newsfeeds).  See What's left for RSS to disrupt? Plenty.  Now, in its announcement that it is marrying RSS to a beta version of its email service, Yahoo! has taken a major step in the right direction.  To be honest, this particular marriage doesn't really solve the spam problem and none of the news surrounding it has implied that it does.  But by acting on the idea that RSS is relevant to email, Yahoo has taken that all important baby step that can become the proof point upon which further innovation -- the sort that can end spam -- can be inspired.  As a reminder, here's what I wrote about some of the ways RSS can eliminate spam if it was used to rearchitect the way email works:

  • RSS is 100 percent opt-in. You won't get an RSS feed in your RSS reader unless you ask for it. This means that we get to decide who can send stuff into our inboxes. This is much better than the system today where Congress and the FTC apparently feel they have the right to decide that (while the big money marketing lobbies magically get more of the lawmakers' ears than you or me).
  • Whereas SMTP is a store-and-forward protocol, RSS is a store-and-get-retrieved protocol. With SMTP, by the time the spam is in the mail (most of the time with a bogus return address), the spammer has taken the additional step of closing up shop and moving. The way spammers do this reminds me a bit of those oriental rug shops that appear to go out of business within days of opening. One day, someone will explain to me why this is a sensible way to sell rugs (I'll bet it has to do with a loophole in an import/export law). I digress. With RSS (the "Retrieving Stops Spam" protocol), if the spammers are serious about actually getting the spam into our inboxes, then, not only can't they give us bogus address information, but they also have the burden of storing the spam on their systems and, even more importantly, have to set up an XML feed that points to where the spam is stored. Today, SMTP allows spammers to go out of their way to cover their tracks. Tomorrow, if we replaced SMTP with RSS, spammers would have to lay tracks that lead straight to their front door.