Spam Debate Goes to Washington

WASHINGTON (05/03/2000) - More than 100 Internet industry executives and policy analysts this week will meet for the Spam Summit 2000, an invitation-only event that explores the technical, legal and political implications of unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Historically a problem for ISPs, spam is on the rise in corporate America. One theme of Spam Summit 2000 is the difficulties that companies face eliminating spam - often of a pornographic nature - that is sent to employees on the job.

"The issues surrounding spam are very different in the corporate environment than they are for ISPs," says Sunil Paul, chairman of Brightmail Inc., an antispam software provider that is hosting the event. "ISPs are worried about the resource drain in having to send and store spam, and they're worried about the churn in subscribers caused by spam. With corporations, the problems are liability and productivity."

Several courts have found that the availability of pornographic Web sites on the job can create a hostile environment for workers, and industry sources say these cases are likely to extend to spam. Meanwhile, e-mail peddling adult sites, freebies and work-at-home opportunities are a generally unwanted diversion for employees that receive dozens of e-mail messages a day.

"There are also resource issues with spam. Spam does take up server load. I know of corporations whose servers have been taken down by Spam," Paul adds, pointing out that Motorola is among the companies that uses Brightmail's antispam software.

Spam is a problem at the Salt River Project, a Phoenix, Arizona utility whose 4,000 employees receive more than 10,000 e-mail messages a day via the Internet. However, SRP is not yet filtering incoming e-mail for telltale signs of spam such as words like "adult," "earn" or "free."

"Adult spamming raises the most objection here. Users want it blocked," says Joe McKee, a principal electrical engineer. "I tell them I'm waiting for management to make a decision about that."

McKee says the tricky part about filtering the content of incoming Internet e-mail is targeting the right mail to sequester or reject. Many SRP employees subscribe to mailing lists, and the company needs to allow messages from these general distribution lists while cutting off spam.

"We've got employees that belong to the Microsoft list serv for technical support," McKee says. "We need to let messages like that through."

Spam Summit 2000 comes at a time when legislative interest in eradicating spam is on the rise. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, is expected to announce an antispam bill next week that will cover corporate users as well as consumers and ISPs. Meanwhile, a bill that gives consumers the right to opt out of spam is winding its way through the House of Representatives and is expected to face a vote by the House Commerce Committee later this month.

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