Stopping e-mail spam from clogging networks, forcing over-provisioning of mail servers and stealing end users' time is the challenge which has consumed Julian Ehrlich, director of Sydney company Pearl Communications for the past four years.
He claims to have conceived a "disruptive technology" that focuses on the relationship between e-mail sender and recipient rather than attributes of e-mail messages themselves.
"Instead of spam burdens falling on recipients, Pearl's NoSpamE-Mail (NSEM) would require senders to prove a valid relationship with intended recipients," said Ehrlich. It sounds complicated, but would be a highly automated service which would take 12 to 15 programmer-years and $1 million to $1.5 million to develop, according to Ehrlich. He said he is seeking a partner from the Internet community.
He says NSEM doesn't rely on lists, filters, spam traps, network analysis nor content analysis. To shield subscribers from spam, it instead would automatically provide them with substitute private e-mail addresses and only pass messages from senders with established relationships or from those who are prepared to provide information which validates who they are and their reason for sending the message.
"Upon subscribing, everyone in your address book would receive a message advising of your new e-mail address. But NSEM intervenes behind the scenes and issues each correspondent with a unique address no one else can use," he said.
"This development will cause an upheaval in the ISP industry because some ISPs would be able to profit from eliminating spam [in a premium service] and differentiate on core functionality," Ehrlich said. "They could escape commodity pricing and reduce provisioning costs."
A service provider could also provide NSEM directly to customers who want to continue using their existing ISP for connectivity.
Ehrlich said current antispam technologies classify messages as 'probably OK' and 'probably spam'. They deliver mail whose sender's addresses appear on "inclusion lists" and block correspondence if senders' addresses appear on 'exclusion' lists or if analysis of messages betrays unwanted content or a 'bad Internet track record'.
"But with categories of probably OK and probably spam, some spam slips through and some real messages are quarantined along with offers for Viagra, debt reduction, and true love," he said.
"My own lawyer's mail meister recently devised a filter that accidentally blocked all mail from one of Australia's largest ISPs," Ehrlich said. "That is an ever-present disaster-in-waiting with current antispam methods."
Current antispam methods turn recipients into reluctant spam managers, who delete messages, devise filters, and check for diverted critical messages, he said.
According to Ehrlich, NSEM's antispam functions are based on managing human relationships. "The underlying principle is simple," he said. "When someone knocks on your door you ask 'who are you?' before opening. NSEM e-mail acts as your butler and 'answers the door' for you.
"Known and trusted people are let in, strangers are turned away. People with plausible reasons for contact are allowed temporarily into the hall. If you approve, your butler shows visitors to the parlour. If you decline, visitors are turned away."
NSEM's "waiting in the hall" means appearing in subscribers' inboxes as a traffic report which summarises "possibly legitimate" messages with one-line entries under headings like "referred by friend", "from business card", and so on. If the user approves of one of these, the mail is delivered to their inbox "lobby". Declined mail is deleted and the relationship ended.
"Spam accounts for 20 per cent of e-mail traffic but carriers and ISPs pass the costs of storing and delivering spam on to subscribers. So the real business problem is that antispam products cost ISPs money to install and manage and then hurt ISP revenues by reducing users' connect time and paid storage," Ehrlich said.
"Current technologies expose the network and allow spam [to cross the Internet and arrive] close to recipients' mail servers or PCs, instead of stopping spam near the sender," Ehrlich said. "This is despite heavy [investments made by] antispam operations such as market leader Brightmail.
"Brightmail runs a 24x7 laboratory administering exclusion lists built from sampling 100 million 'spam trap' mailboxes," he said. "But NSEM mail doesn't leave senders' mail servers until senders establish credentials."
One of the challenges Ehrlich grappled with is the question of how such a service would keep customers actively using it when for them it has eliminated the spam problem. For this reason, Ehrlich is positioning spam elimination as a by-product of what he calls "useful and fun stuff" which NSEM could also provide. This would include multiple address styles for different correspondents, universal unsend, address error detection and delivery alerts for senders and recipients, guaranteed delivery confirmation, theme control (no accidental delivery of jokes to the boss or budgets to competitors!), resuscitation of old e-mail addresses and automatic FTP management. wHow NSEM would workMessages to and from NoSpamE-Mail (NSEM) subscribers would pass through NSEM's single "virtual server" -- a central server combined with the licensed servers of ISPs and others.
Subscribers would have a real address to which only NSEM sends. The system would also automatically issue a unique surrogate address to subscribers' correspondents and record THAT unique address as issued to THAT person in a database.
When THAT person uses THAT unique address to send a message to a subscriber, NSEM would receive the message, replace the public surrogate address with the real address and deliver this as "legitimate" mail.
Mail from anyone else using that unique address would be treated as "suspect" and would not be delivered.
Legitimate mail is delivered. Other mail, held pending the subscriber's approval, would appear in a traffic report -- a single e-mail document with "possibly legitimate" messages grouped as one-line entries under headings: Referred, Business card, Web site, Previous (expired) contacts seeking to renew, and so on.
Referred by others: Legitimate correspondents may give a subscriber's contact details to friends. They could provide a simple instruction such as "put my surname address in the Subject field" for that mail to be delivered quickly. Mail from strangers using someone else's unique address is checked by NSEM for referral -- a match and the message appears in the Traffic Report. No referral? Senders receive a polite NSEM message asking for specific referral information, data about referrers that spammers couldn't know. Referred senders resend their messages. Mail from referred strangers is delayed, not lost. No spam arrives.
Using business card: Spammers in the business of bulk e-mailing won't have a subscriber's business card. A business card could have its "own" unique address and incoming mail "addressed to" the business card address would appear in the Traffic Report for acceptance or refusal. Subscribers could use a NSEM "address generator" to change their business card address whenever printing new cards. Or they could print special business cards for trade shows so the Traffic Report would identify "Trade show contacts".
Using Web site: Spammers "harvest" e-mail addresses on Web pages. Instead, Web sites could provide a link to NSEM's Web-based mail form.
Previous (expired) contact: Subscribers could manage transient relationships with sales people and charity workers, for example, by having their unique addresses turn on and off according to their schedule and needs. According to set preferences, such messages may be delivered, "ask permission" in a Traffic Report, or deleted unseen.