2005: The Year We Didn't Solve Spam

Columnist Ray Everett-Church says we could have solved the problem of spam this year. It is doable. We just need to believe it can be done.
As we approach the end of another year, the pessimist in me always enjoys looking back at the year to wallow in all the missed opportunities.

High on my disappointment list for 2005 is the fact that, after yet another year of fighting spam, the world seems no closer to solving the problem of unwanted, bulk email.

We didn't hear too much this year about spam. Aside from a few successful lawsuits against a handful of spammers, and a handful more being sent to jail under various federal and state anti-spam laws, there has been precious little groundbreaking news in the world of spam.

Could the lack of news mean spam is disappearing as a concern for IT managers and service providers?

Unfortunately, no.

Every available metric from the past year suggests spam volumes have continued their upward trend toward record highs. For the average user, the volume of daily emails containing ads for get-rich-quick schemes and get-erect-fast pills hasn't changed noticeably over the last year.

It's not as if there hasn't been progress in spam fighting in recent years. Many existing technologies have seen incremental improvement. But many of those improvements have been tantamount to increasing the size of the buckets used to bail out a sinking boat.

Today's super-sized buckets may be helping to keep pace with the flood of spam, but the systemic origins of the problem are no closer to being solved.

If there has been any major difference for spam this year, it's been that in 2005 the anger toward spam has been replaced by a kind of grudging acceptance that it's just one of those annoyances that isn't going to change anytime soon.

Spam Solutions

For me, that resignation is itself a huge source of frustration, because I know something that not many people know: There are some very promising solutions to the spam problem that are being completely ignored because the world is too busy accepting the status quo.

When I talk of solutions to spam, I don't use the word 'solutions' lightly. I truly mean there are ideas afoot that, if implemented by even a handful of key businesses and service providers, would put us on a track to render the problem substantially solved.

Sadly, today's conventional wisdom is that spam is a chronic and virtually insoluble problem. I know how deeply engrained this belief is because I've spent much of the last decade saying exactly that.

But I'm here to tell you the conventional wisdom is dead wrong because the world of spam has changed. It's an urban myth, a kernel of truth wrapped in the circumstances of yesterday's spam problem, sold to the masses as gospel because the whole truth is too complicated.

As a co-founder of the anti-spam group, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, I spent the last half of the 1990s trying to explain to lawmakers, thought-leaders, and technologists that spam was far from a simple problem and that those who promised simple solutions were peddling snake oil.

But in my defense, rewind to when the spam problem first reared its ugly head in the mid-1990s. To many, spam hardly seemed like a big deal. Many newcomers to the Internet and email couldn't fathom that such a seemingly simple problem could be that difficult to deal with.

But for those of us who delved deeply into the problem, it didn't take long to realize that spam was not merely an isolated or simple problem, but rather a symptom of some fundamental inadequacies at the heart of email.

We recognized that the spam problem was not completely insoluble, but we understood that real solutions required changes that were so unbelievably complicated that only those with a deep understanding of email's inner workings could even begin to unravel the problems.

I'm embarrassed to say that we did such a good job in driving home the message that spam is more complex than people realize, some began to think it impossible to handle.

Indeed, the near impossibility of the solution has become so deeply engrained in conventional wisdom that, as the scope of the problem has grown, solutions that are now becoming practical are still being dismissed as unworkable.

Unfortunately, the gospel of spam's complexity is now making it difficult for many to accept that real solutions might be possible.

After several years of watching the anti-spam technology market evolve, the vibe in 2005 was one of acquiescence. Like death and taxes, the best and brightest have just resigned themselves to the idea that spam is an unavoidable fact of life. Nobody has a cure, of course, because conventional wisdom tells us that the best we can hope for is to manage spam as a chronic disease.

That acceptance has made for a profitable market in anti-spam technologies. Major technology firms have continued to scoop up any idea that promises to make the life of IT managers even a tiny bit better.

No Simple Fixes, but Fixes

The continuing irony is that as the market has continued to invest in the intractability of the spam problem, some very promising spam cures proposed over the last couple of years have gotten no traction at all.

The solution to spam is no mystery. It boils down to adding authentication and accountability to email. The technologies and techniques for doing so have been built, tested, deployed, and verified to work quite well.

As predicted, the solutions are not simple fixes. They require substantial changes to how email works today. But as the scale of the problem continues to grow, the scale of what is an acceptable solution also has grown.

In recognizing that today's conventional wisdom about spam is hobbling efforts to reach a solution, I accept my own portion of the blame. Over the last several years, I have helped draft too many business plans built on the premise that as long as there is no cure, you can build a successful business addressing the symptoms.

It's a lot like a poster I have in my office from Despair.com. In a satirical twist on those cheesy motivational posters that adorn many corporate lunch rooms, the poster in my office reads, ''If you're not a part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem.''

Unfortunately, too many of the key decision makers who are in a position to drive the roll-out of today's most promising spam solutions are too heavily invested in the status quo. Conventional wisdom tells them that there is no cure, and these people didn't get to positions of power by bucking conventional wisdom.

As we begin 2006 eating our daily ration of spam, the challenge for our industry's leaders is to reject today's miasma and accept the new wisdom: Spam really can be ended if we only have the collective will to do it.

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