Spam Summit Calls For Global Coalition To Fight Junk E-Mail

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Nothing short of a global war on spam is necessary to stem the deluge of unwanted e-mail messages, said politicians and industry leaders meeting Tuesday in London.

At the All Party Parliamentary Internet Group's Spam Summit, government officials and security firms from the U.K., the European Union (E.U.), and the United States bemoaned both the rising tide of spam and called for cross-border cooperation, including legislation, to stop spam's rapid growth.

"Spam is not just a U.K. or European problem," said U.K. E-commerce Minister Stephen Timms in the opening address at the summit. "Most spam comes from outside [Europe]. A lot of it comes from the U.S. Hopefully, it's possible for us to come up with an E.U.-U.S. solution from our discussions today."

Spam acknowledges no borders, participants noted, which makes any one government's laws ineffective in fighting spam. That mirrors opinions expressed earlier in the United States, particularly by the Federal Trade Commission, which earlier this month urged Congress during hearings to give it increased powers to combat spam that originates outside the U.S.

Many Europeans, including some of those at the summit, look to the U.S. for the solution. Not because the United States is leading anti-spam legislative efforts, but because they see the U.S. as the breeding ground for much of the world's junk mail.

"The U.S. law is going to be the key," said Steve Linford of Spamhaus Project, a U.K.-based non-profit that tracks spammers, according to a Reuters news story. At one point, Linford called the United States "the spam capital of the world." Spamhaus has identified fewer than 200 professional, chronic spammers who it says are responsible for roughly 90 percent of the junk mail delivered to U.S. and European e-mail addresses; most are based in America, said Spamhaus.

Brightmail, a U.S.-based spam filtering software maker, doesn't completely agree with this we-are-to-blame take, said Francois Lavaste, the firm's vice president of marketing. While about 80 percent of all spam is written in English, that doesn't mean it originates in an English-speaking country, he noted.

"It's almost impossible to trace spammers back to the actual sender," he said, since professional spammers go to great lengths -- including using open relays -- to disguise themselves.

In fact, said Lavaste, the amount of spam that comes from a 'last source' IP within the U.S. is actually decreasing, although that, too, can be deceiving, what with spammers' tactics of off-loading mass mailings to servers around the world.

Although not spreading as fast as the spam they intend to stop, legislation in the United States has been proliferating, especially at the federal level. Several bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate in the past few months, and at least one, the 'Can Spam Act,' co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Or.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mt.), has been released from committee and put before the full Senate.

But European and American legislation tactics are quite different. While the E.U. requires that all mailers, legitimate or not, get prior approval from recipients before they can send e-mail -- an 'opt-in' approach -- U.S. legislation is typically laxer, and would allow end users to stop spam only by 'opting out,' or adding their name and addresses to a so-called 'do not spam' list.

Even the toughest legislation isn't the answer, said at least one industry official in London. "The law can only reach so far," said Enrique Salem, the CEO of Brightmail, speaking at the summit.

Lavaste backed up his boss. "Only a combination of initiatives will stop spam," he said. He listed anti-spam technology, including the filtering his company does for enterprises and service providers; legislation and enforcement; control over outbound mail by businesses and ISPs to stem the spread of spam; and changes in direct marketing best practices as the ways that spam will be stopped.

"There's not one single way to eliminate the problem," he said.

According to Lavaste, the spam scourge shows no sign of abating in the near future, and is, in fact, on target to soon reach the magical 50-50 mark, where one out of every two e-mail messages is spam.

By Brightmail's figures, spam accounted for a paltry seven percent of all messages in April, 2001. By the end of May, 2003, that figure had jumped to 48 percent. Brightmail has not yet calculated June's numbers, but it's possible, said Lavaste, that the 50 percent barrier will be broken by that month, or in July. His most conservative estimate was that spam would top the 50 percent mark by September.

"It's a milestone, this 50-50 number," admitted Lavaste. "It means spam has become a problem that has to be dealt with, not just an annoyance, but a security issue that wastes [enterprise] time and resources."

Those hoping for strong anti-spam ruling from the courts also took one on the chin, as the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that a barrage of disparaging messages does not constitute trespassing.

The ruling means that spammers cannot be sued under California law for property trespass, the tactic that the defendants' former employer, Intel, used to try to put an end to the fired worker's message campaign.

This story courtesy of TechWeb.

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