Spam wars

Anti-spam vendors can't thwart the spam boom. Is it time for an e-mail tax?

Revenge of the e-mail tax

Holding back the spam tide may require shaking up the world of e-mail. Harbaugh calls for striking at the heart of how spammers ply their trade; currently, spam is blasted to the masses in three ways: via registered e-mail servers, mail servers that allow anonymous forwards, and botnets of subverted computers.

With registered e-mail servers, many ISPs block servers that send messages in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act. But the law only applies within the U.S., and spam is legal in many countries. It's also difficult for ISPs to preemptively block spam without opening themselves to liability charges. "The only practical way to stop this kind of spam is charging per message," says Harbaugh. "If ISPs are being charged per message, it gives them a real economic incentive to patrol their networks and stop spammers quickly."

Charging for messages is a sensitive issue. It's likely that junk-mail advertisers will happily pay fees and push out even more spam. And then there's the thorny idea of taxing the Internet. "The Internet is free to everyone," Forrester's Wang says. "Besides, spam is not getting worse ... the majority of the threat now lies in the Web channel -- not e-mail channel -- such as fake Web sites and hacked real Web sites."

Undaunted, Harbaugh also wants to take a hard-line approach to mail servers that allow anonymous forwards. His suggestion: make all mail servers comply with security measures that block anonymous forwarding. By some estimates, a server that doesn't block anonymous forwarding will be exploited by spammers within minutes. Revised SMTP protocols would make it easier to trace people who are illegally sending spam. And message charges would provide a financial incentive for people with mail servers to follow the new rules.

Last, botnets have hijacked a million computers that send countless spam usually without a computer owner's knowledge. These compromised computers need a firewall (which is readily available and free) that stops outgoing SMTP. Yet fines for computer owners who don't install the firewall would be difficult to levy, since many of the compromised computers are home computers.

"There would be political consequences," admits Harbaugh, as he considers a potential newspaper headline: "82-year-old grandmother charged [US]$21,000 for having a virus!" But ISPs could block outgoing SMTP for their residential customers, he says, especially if spam sent from compromised computers is costing ISPs money in the form of message charges.

While a message charge is futuristic fodder, it's this kind of thinking that will ultimately undo spam -- not necessarily a more effective e-mail appliance.

And there's no question that IT security risks and budget burdens caused by the spam boom have forced companies to make spam reduction a priority. Companies are now willing to try new things even at the risk of upsetting users. For instance, some companies block all incoming messages from EarthLink, MSN, and other providers that host spammers, even if it means they block legitimate e-mails, too.

"There's definitely still room for innovation," says Harbaugh. "Anything that the anti-spam vendors use is generally bypassed by the spammers in relatively short order. So it might be more accurate to say that innovation is critical and ongoing."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Tom Kaneshige

InfoWorld
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?