Defining Spam Technically Isn't Easy

FRAMINGHAM (05/08/2000) - Doug Garfinkel was on an intelligence mission of sorts at a conference last week devoted to e-mail spam. His e-commerce company, BigStar Entertainment Inc., sells videos over the Internet and uses e-mail to keep its customers informed.

BigStar gets customers' approval before sending them e-mail. But Garfinkel said he's worried that a battle over spam could affect his company.

"We want to make sure that we are staying on top of all the issues associated with unsolicited e-mail," said Garfinkel, marketing director at New York-based BigStar. "We don't want to become an unsolicited e-mailer - there are varying definitions of what that is."

Spam is unsolicited commercial e-mail. But federal and state legislation could change the definition of unsolicited commercial e-mail by setting certain "opt-in" or "opt-out" procedures. For instance, if a law is written to require consent, then e-mail that uses an opt-out approach may be viewed as something similar to spam. Opt-out approaches require a customer to indicate that he doesn't want e-mail.

At the Spam Summit 2000 conference, organized by Brightmail Inc., a San Francisco-based antispam service, executives from direct marketers, Internet service providers, portals and other organizations debated how to best handle the problem.

Technical solutions, such as filtering on servers or clients, are limited in scope, since spammers can typically find ways around them, said several conference speakers.

Plus, there are risks associated with antispamming devices that try to distinguish between spam and legitimate e-mail sent by a company with a customer's consent.

"There is no way that technology alone can determine a piece of e-mail from spam," said Rosalind Resnick, CEO of NetCreations Inc., a New York-based direct marketing firm with 8 million customers. Her firm requires an opt-in process that customers must confirm.

There is also a push for legislation. Sixteen states have already approved some form of antispam legislation. And Congress is considering a measure, known as the Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act, that relies on civil litigation to attack spam. The bill would make it easier for Internet service providers to seek financial damages - up to $500 per spam message - from people and companies who violate a service provider's policy.

But Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, warned that the legislation would require the sender to know the policies of every Internet service provider that a message travels through. The bill would also give providers the freedom to write whatever policies they want. "I think we have the potential for lots of unintended consequences on the Internet," she said.

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