Wednesday, June 23, 2021

2005: The Year We Didn’t Solve Spam

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in 2005 the anger toward spam has been replaced by a kind of grudging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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