Workplace Spam Prompts Legal Concerns

WASHINGTON (05/05/2000) - Are e-mails peddling adult Web sites, get-rich-quick schemes and online freebies popping up more often in your in-box at work? If so, you're not alone. Historically a problem for ISPs and consumers, spam is on the rise in corporate America.

Unsolicited commercial e-mail - commonly known as spam - causes headaches for corporate IT executives. Spam is a resource drain, siphoning network resources such as Internet bandwidth, mail server processing cycles and storage capacity.

From a business perspective, spam is a time-consuming distraction for employees.

What worries corporate lawyers and human resources executives is the rise in X-rated spam being sent to employees on the job.

"With corporations, the problems are liability and productivity," says Sunil Paul, chairman of Brightmail Inc., a maker of antispam software. "It has been demonstrated in court cases that adult-nature Web sites can create a hostile environment. What your co-worker has up on the screen is the same as having a pinup on a billboard. If that's true, I'm very sure we're going to see court cases about adult content in spam."

The problems caused by workplace spam were debated at the Spam Summit 2000 in Washington, D.C. this week. More than 100 Internet industry executives and policy analysts attended the event, which explored the technical, legal and political implications of spam.

Spam will be in the news again this week when Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, announces an antispam bill that covers corporate users as well as consumers and ISPs. A similar bill that gives consumers the right to opt out of spam will face a vote by the House Commerce Committee later this month.

Corporate IT managers are just becoming aware of the liability issues associated with on-the-job spam, experts say. Relatively few companies - such as Motorola Inc. and Promus Hotel - are actively blocking spam either with server software or hosted filtering services.

Spam is a problem at the Salt River Project (SRP), a Phoenix, Arizona, utility where 4,000 employees receive more than 10,000 e-mail messages per 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 server for technical support," McKee says. "We need to let messages like that through."

Jerry Fain, IT director at Boston recruiting firm Winter, Wyman & Company, says his 250 employees are receiving more junk e-mail than they did a year ago, but the problem isn't severe enough to justify buying antispam software.

"Employees are getting more junk mail from surfing the Web," Fain says. "I'll go out there and register at a bunch of sites and the next thing you know, I'm getting hammered every day with these e-mails. That seems to be the issue here."

To address his own spam problem, Fain is setting up a separate e-mail account for business-oriented Web sites, e-mail newsletters and mailing lists. "I get 50 or 60 messages a day from those mailing lists and newsletters," he says. "I should take the time to unsubscribe to the ones I don't want, but it's easier to delete them."

Two technology trends are likely to heighten the corporate spam problem:

Broadband Internet access provides spammers with faster connections for sending large volumes of messages. And always-on connections make it easier for them to find an unguarded network resource to use to send their messages, says Brian Dally, senior manager of product management at Excite@Home.

Spam is cropping up in wireless networks, where it will likely plague users of pagers, cellular telephones and handheld Web e-mail devices. This is a sticky issue because wireless customers get billed for incoming messages and often use these devices for critical communications only, says Kerry McKelvey, vice president of marketing at MCI WorldCom's Skytel unit.

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