The spam problem has gotten so bad that it threatens to overwhelm e-mail as an effective communications medium, according to Microsoft
founder Bill Gates.
In an open letter posted on the Microsoft Web site on Tuesday, Gates said Microsoft took the spam problem seriously and would work on multiple fronts to fight it, including improved technology, more civil litigation and support of federal legislation. However, he endorsed a tepid approach on the legislative front, saying self-regulation was the most effective remedy.
Microsoft has taken a higher profile on the spam issue lately. The open letter follows up on an op-ed written by Gates in The Wall Street Journal on Monday. The Microsoft chairman has also testified to the Senate on the subject. Additionally, the company held a press conference in Bellevue, Wash., and London last week to announce a flurry of lawsuits against alleged spammers. Microsoft also said it has 20 employees working full-time on the problem.
Microsoft supports federal legislation, but only to define what the industry must do to police itself. Gates reiterated his support for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) setting up an independent authority to certify bulk e-mail senders follow guidelines and to resolve disputes. Current Internet privacy groups TRUSTe and BBBOnline serve as the model.
“As less [spam] reaches recipients — and violators face stiffer sanctions for illegal activities — the financial incentives for spammers will decrease, and spamming will lose much of its appeal,” Gates said.
With as many as seven competing bills introduced to Congress so far, Gates endorses an approach that leans heavily toward self-regulation. In testimony to the U.S. Senate last month, he cautioned Senators against a heavy-handed anti-spam bill that could squelch growing industries like e-mail marketing.
“Federal legislation should identify the basic components that industry guidelines must address, such as notice and choice obligations, but permit the industry to take the lead in developing the specific guidelines within these parameters,” he said.
Instead of requiring “ADV” on each piece of commercial e-mail, as many state laws require, Microsoft endorses its inclusion only on e-mail from marketers that do not abide by the guidelines enforced by the independent authority.
Gates acknowledges the industry has a ways to go before it can propose guidelines for legitimate commercial e-mail. The FTC spam forum in late April highlighted this problem, as few participants could agree on a definition of spam. Likewise, the Direct Marketing Association, the industry’s heavyweight trade group, took a pass on defining spam in its spam working strategy released last month.
To bridge this gap, Gates said Microsoft is participating in talks with marketers, consumer groups and other tech companies to come up workable guidelines.
“Enabling consumers to regain control of their in-boxes in this way would dramatically reduce the volume of spam by creating strong incentives for businesses to make sure their communications are consistent with best-practices guidelines developed by the industry itself,” Gates said.