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New fronts opened in war on spam

From technology giants like Microsoft to PC manufacturers to the U.S. government, there’s an all-out war on spam. Hewlett-Packard just starting shipping consumer desktops loaded with anti-spam software. Is there any relief in sight? — By Jane Weaver
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From technology giants like Microsoft to PC manufacturers to the U.S. government, there’s an all-out war on spam. Is there any relief in sight?

COMPUTER MAKER Hewlett-Packard has just started shipping millions of Pavilion and Compaq Presario desktop PCs pre-installed with SpamSubtract software, the companies said Wednesday.

H-P pre-loads Norton anti-virus software onto its machines, but this is the first time it has included a spam-blocker on consumer desktops, said Carol Ozaki, product marketing manager of H-P Personal Systems Group.

For the first 30 days, H-P customers will be able to filter out unwanted commercial e-mail as well as X-rated spam. After a month, customers will be offered the chance to permanently upgrade to the spam-blocker for a one-time fee of $29.95, although the software will continue to block porn spam for free.

H-P chose the software from interMute, a Braintree, Mass. firm, because it blocks offensive and inappropriate text and graphics from e-mail messages, she said. Based on a dictionary of bad words, the software is programmed to catch pornographic text in subject lines and automatically move it to a separate file where it is color-coded. Consumers can later delete the offensive e-mail from the “hold” window.

“We took extra care to make sure the product is family-friendly,” said Ed English, chief executive of interMute.

H-P is the latest company to join the get-tough-on spam crusade.

On Tuesday, Microsoft filed 15 lawsuits against spammers in the United States and the United Kingdom. Most of the e-mail involved fraudulent or deceptive claims. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Microsoft’s lawsuits follow some other high-profile cases charged against spammers, including the Atlanta-based ISP Earthlink which has , which was awarded a $16 million judgment on May 7 by a U.S. District Court against “Buffalo spammer” Howard Carmack.

Carmack, allegedly fraudulently obtained Internet access accounts to send over 825 million messages, was recently indicted in New York state on 14 criminal counts of sending deceptive e-mail.

No trial date has been set.

The Federal Trade Commission has also stepped up its action against deceptive spammers, calling on Congress last week to grant the commission broader powers to track down, subpoena and prosecute people who send fraudulent e-mail messages.

The FTC has requested amendments to the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act that would empower it to go after fraudulent spammers more aggressively.

Then there are the Congressional legislation which has been introduced — a spam bill introduced by Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and another from Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).


With all this anti-spam activity going on, why is it getting worse?

Lawsuits are good headline-grabbers, but won’t slow down the uncountable numbers of spammers in the long run, Internet experts say.

“Lawsuits may help a bit, but neither civil actions, nor government regulations will suppress spam,” said David Ferris, analyst with technology research firm Ferris Research.

“At best, these suits will make examples of a handful of notorious spammers, but they will not have a long-term effect on the problem,” said Michael Overly, partner in the E-Business & Information Technology Group at law offices of Foley & Lardner. “There are simply too many entities and individuals engaged in spamming. It’s not possible to prosecute even a small percentage of them.”

Vincent Schiavone, chief executive of the ePrivacy Group, a consumer group dedicated to fighting spam, says that focusing on lawsuits overlooks ways to stop it at the source. Requiring “digital signatures” on marketing messages or official e-mail sent by companies would help block certain scams. If an e-mail was certified by a company that it is a “trusted sender,” consumers could verify the source of the e-mail.

Digital signatures in e-mail could prevent “spoofing,” a practice that makes an e-mail falsely look like it came from an innocent third party and makes a piece of spam very difficult to track, said Schiavone.

Illegal spam is easy to identify, but it’s difficult to catch the people sending it. Even the Microsoft lawsuits included several “John Does” who could not be identified.

“E-mail was not built to be trustworthy where you actually know who sent the e-mail at a consumer level,” said Schiavone. “We need clear and understandable laws, but we also need some technology improvements so spoofing is not possible.”

Analyst Ferris believes a series of techniques could alleviate the problem over the next 3-5 years. They include: “white lists” which only allow e-mail from previously approved addresses to reach a user’s inbox; “challenge response,” where an unrecognized e-mail address is sent a message asking to identify itself as a real person (most spam e-mail is automated); and software that builds up a database of recognized spam and then filters it out.

“We don’t think there’s any one technique, but a series of them,” said Ferris.

As for the legal pursuit of spammers, it’s going to take hard time to deter most of the sleazy e-mail marketers, say attorneys.

“If a hardcore spammer were to go to jail for unlawful trespass and damage to property, it would be a strong disincentive to spam,” said Bart Lazar, a Partner at Seyfarth Shaw who has handled Internet-related matters before the Federal Trade Commission and other regulatory agencies.

Pete Wellborn, outside counsel for ISP Earthlink says, “It’s a wonderful trend we’re seeing that people are finally recognizing the illegality of spam.”

“The number of spammers will decrease exponentially once they realize that if they hit that send button, they’ll lose everything they have or they’re going to jail.”