Internet companies have begun to change the way e-mail works in order to weed out spam, but experts Tuesday clashed over whether the underlying technology should be controlled by any one company.
At a meeting hosted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, advocates of open-source technology questioned whether a standard patented by Microsoft Corp. should be incorporated into the fabric of the Internet, where free, open-source software has long dominated.
Others said they didn't care which standard was adopted as long as it provided a way to highlight legitimate e-mail in a sea of spam.
"We want to make sure our guys have the ability to communicate with their consumers, period," said Louis Mastria, spokesman for the Direct Marketing Association, which represents 5,000 bulk mailers.
Senders of unsolicited spam and deceptive "phishing" attacks commonly use fake addresses to slip through content filters. Microsoft officials estimate that 81 percent of all mail coming into its Hotmail system is "spoofed" in this way.
Microsoft and companies like Cisco Systems Inc. and Yahoo Inc. have developed different methods to verify e-mail to determine that a message from, for example, firstname.lastname@example.org actually comes from example.com's mail servers.
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E-mail providers like Time Warner Inc.'s America Online and EarthLink Inc. have begun to test Microsoft's standard, which is invisible to everyday users.
Yahoo and Cisco's approaches are more technically demanding and will take longer to implement.
Microsoft has sought to combine its proposal with another popular standard developed by entrepreneur Meng Wong, but splits appeared in September when open-source advocates said they were reluctant to use Microsoft-patented technology, even though the dominant software company said it would not charge for its use.
David Kaefer of Microsoft said the patent "sets up a legal framework for people to do business with one another, for people to not end up in a situation where they end up in legal disputes."
But the Apache software used by most Web servers has flourished without patents, said Daniel Quinlan, vice president of Apache SpamAssassin.
Harvard University's Scott Bradner said the legal language put forward by Microsoft clouded what should have been a technical discussion among engineers looking for a reliable standard.
"The license was written in lawyer, it wasn't written in human," he said.
Microsoft has since revised its standard and won the support of technology companies including Sendmail Inc., whose open-source software is widely used to run e-mail systems.