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Give us back our in-boxes

ANNIVERSARIES of technological breakthroughs are regularly celebrated, but some developments are less welcome than others.

 

One anniversary that has been missed by many happened exactly ten years ago. In 1994, a small law company called Canter & Siegel had what they thought was the bright idea of flooding message boards and e-mail recipients with unsolicited messages advertising their services. The reaction was dramatic; thousands of recipients registered their displeasure and the term ‘spam’ (taken from a Monty Python sketch) was born for these unwelcome messages.

 

Ten years later and it must be admitted that spam has pretty much conquered the world of electronic messaging. It is estimated that at least 75 per cent of all e-mails are now unsolicited messages which weighs in at around 14.5bn per day and the cost to e-mail providers and users of coping with all this is more than £l0bn per year.

 

It has had other effects: many people have reported an increased reluctance to use e-mail after being bombarded with explicit messages promoting porn sites and sex-enhancement aids. Many users, having installed spam-filtering technology, find that the occasional legitimate e-mail gets blocked in error. As a result, we can no longer be sure that legitimate messages will reach their recipients.

 

Lawmakers have reacted to this. The CAN SPAM law has been in force since the beginning of the year in the USA , and other countries, including the UK , have similar laws banning the bulk shipment of unsolicited e mails. However, they have not had much effect on the problem.

 

Michael Fabricant, the UK shadow spokesman for economic affairs, has claimed that the UK law needs to be strengthened if we aren’t to become “a pariah nation among the global e-community”.

 

But the solution isn’t really a legal one. It turns out that it is so difficult to prove the source of spam messaging that it is virtually impossible to prosecute — no spammer has yet been prosecuted in the UK and it is unlikely that this situation will change any time soon.

 

The real solution, as is so often the case, is a technological one. Microsoft boss, Bill Gates, is on record as saying that the spam problem can be solved “within two years”. Well, he has around a year and a half to go and Microsoft and others are making some progress.

 

One solution from Microsoft is to challenge the computer which originated an e-mail message to solve a mathematical problem before its e-mail is sent on. For the legitimate e-mail sender, such a task would be trivial, but for the bulk e-mailer, with millions of messages to deliver, it would cost a great deal of processing time.

 

But it is most likely that methods will be adopted which will absolutely prove the identity of legitimate senders of e-mail — a kind of electronic ID Card. AOL is testing a technology called ‘Sender Permitted From’, Yahoo has its ‘Domainkeys’ plan and Microsoft has published a specification titled ‘Caller ID for Email’. They all try to ensure that the true sender of e-mail can be correctly identified, and therefore the spammers, the spreaders of masses of e-mail junk, can be correctly spotted, so that they can be prosecuted and blocked.

 

One way or another, it shouldn’t be too long before it is fixed. It will be good to get our in-boxes back.

 

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