TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Spam Wars Still Rage, Critics Say

Spam Wars Still Rage, Critics Say

Grant Gross (
Thu, 22 Dec 2005 13:42:02 -0600

Grant Gross, IDG News Service

WASHINGTON-- Some antispam vendors and computer users don't see the
same picture the Federal Trade Commission viewed in its recent report
that many people now get less unsolicited commercial e-mail in their
inboxes than two years ago.

The spam problem isn't shrinking, said Ray Everett-Church, counsel for
the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail and author of the
new book, "Fighting Spam for Dummies."

"Technology has improved incrementally in the last year, but spam
volumes remain at all-time highs by most measures," Everett-Church

FTC Claims Success

The FTC, in a report to Congress on Tuesday, said antispam filtering
technology and a two-year-old federal law have contributed to less
spam showing up in inboxes. The total amount of spam being sent
appears to be "leveling off," if not declining, but spam filters are
catching most of it, the FTC said.

The CAN-SPAM Act, signed into law in late 2003, has also helped fight
spam, by setting standards for mass e-mail marketing and by allowing
about 50 lawsuits against spammers that were filed by the FTC, law
enforcement agencies and Internet companies in the last two years, the
FTC said. CAN-SPAM has given law enforcement agencies and ISPs "tools
to deal with outlaw spammers," said Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC
Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Spam-filtering technology is also a reason computer users are seeing
less spam, according to the FTC. Asked CAN-SPAM's contribution
compared to spam filters, Parnes said Tuesday she didn't know.

"It's very difficult to parse out the effect of the law versus the
technological advances," she said. "The act has given us a set of best
practices for companies that use commercial e-mail. That is very

Bulging Inboxes

Others question the FTC's conclusions.

"The FTC might be seeing less spam, but I'm not!" Don Smutny, a Web
site administrator and software developer, wrote in an e-mail reacting
to the FTC report. "I get just as much spam today as I did two years
ago, it's just not all from people that want to sell me
pharmaceuticals. Now, they want me to give them bank account and
credit card information to 'verify my account.'"

Smutny, from Kansas City, Missouri, said he's seen a big increase in
"phishing" e-mail trying to trick recipients into giving up their
personal information. Smutny's employer uses spam-filtering technology
that catches about 75 percent of spam, but the amount of spam coming
into the company has not decreased, he said.

"I don't know just how the FTC measured the amount of spam being sent,
but they didn't measure it at the ISP level," Smutny added. "This is
where a tremendous portion of spam is filtered out, and the ISPs'
customers never even see it. That doesn't mean it wasn't sent,

While the FTC focused more on the amount of spam hitting inboxes
instead of the total amount of spam being sent, the unfiltered volume
of unsolicited messages is a problem, Everett-Church said.

Filtering has provided incremental improvements for end users, but it
doesn't make the problem go away," he said. "The costs are still
there, being borne by the ISPs and businesses."

Everett-Church called for technology vendors to push harder for
efforts to add user authentication to the e-mail system. "Today's
technology improvements are eking a few more horsepower out of an
already overworked engine," he said. "We need a new, better engine,
but nobody is willing to make the investment yet."

Vendors Skeptical

Two antispam vendors agreed with the FTC that filtering is largely
working, but question the effectiveness of CAN-SPAM, which stands for
Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and
Marketing. It's difficult to argue CAN-SPAM had "any kind of real
impact" on the volume of spam, said Scott Chasin, chief technology
officer for MX Logic.

MX Logic found that 68 percent of e-mail traffic it scanned in 2005
was spam, down from 77 percent in 2004. But only 4 percent of
unsolicited commercial e-mail complied with CAN-SPAM in 2005, up from
3 percent in 2004, the company said earlier this month. CAN-SPAM
requires that commercial e-mail include several items, such as a
working return e-mail address, a valid postal address for the sending
company, a working opt-out mechanism and a relevant subject line.

"Overall, the vast majority of [e-mail] traffic on the Internet --
about 85-90 pecent -- is still spam-related content," Chasin said.

Chasin did call CAN-SPAM necessary, saying it has helped educate
legitimate e-mail marketers about acceptable practices.

Jordan Ritter, founder and chief technology officer of antispam vendor
Cloudmark, agreed, but noted that only legitimate marketers have
followed CAN-SPAM's rules. Although the FTC said no changes to
CAN-SPAM are needed, Ritter called for additions to the law to better
define spam and good practices.

"The problem is the people who aren't following the law can't be
found," Ritter added.

Chasin, however, said better technology is the answer to continued
spam problems. "The road map from the technology side in fighting the
spam problem will continue to evolve," he said. "However, the road map
of the spammers will continue to evolve as well."

Copyright 2005 PC World Communications, Inc.

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