ISPs fight spam from the front line

There is little doubt that you have a grueling job when your business card reads "senior abuse administrator." Scores of computer programmers and techies -- many of whom hold similar job titles -- gathered in San Francisco Thursday at SpamCon 2001 to vouch for the difficulties of their labors.

Technical teams working behind the scenes at ISPs (Internet service providers) around the world let it be known at the conference that they really despise unsolicited e-mail, commonly known as spam. They have gathered here for two days to debate the technical, legal and social effects spam has had on their jobs and the Internet as a whole.

"Spam is definitely a problem for us," said Ava Pettit-Mountain, who works in the abuse department for the Boston-based telecommunication company RCN Corp. "Just in terms of consumer complaints it's definitely got a chilling effect."

Much of Pettit-Mountain's workday is consumed by dealing with customer complaints over the hundreds of thousands of e-mail messages that pass through RCN's network each day. While much of her job is dedicated to tracking down Internet hackers that go about their rogue business on RCN's cable and Internet service, Pettit-Mountain said that more than half of each day is consumed by sorting through complaints and phone calls from customers angry over the junk mail that piles up in their inboxes.

"A lot of customers -- they want a magic button," she said. "We do have some mechanisms in place to block e-mail but obviously we have to be conservative about it."

Abuse departments at ISPs from Earthlink Inc. to UUNet Technologies Inc. -- each represented at the conference -- offered similar disdain for the overwhelming problem created by mass e-mail marketing, which often is distributed for illegal or unethical purposes. Many of the people attending SpamCon are looking for answers.

"Technologists have always said, 'It's a problem that can be solved with technology.' End users have said, 'Let's sue spammers into oblivion.' I think it's none of the above," said Tom Geller, the director of SpamCon and an author and pundit on the subject.

Finding a solution to spam has, however, left most people stumped. The U.S. Congress has had little luck on the issue. The U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday slimmed down a bill that would protect consumers against unsolicited bulk e-mail. [See, "House weakens spam legislation," May 24.]A representative from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one of several U.S. government organizations belabored with the task of cracking down on spammers, said Thursday that it has limited resources in aiding consumers in the fight against bulk e-mail.

"We're not an agency that can set the laws," said Jennifer Mandigo, staff attorney with the FTC's consumer division. "But the FTC is ready to generally enforce whatever (Congress) passes."

Ted Gavin, a consultant with Nachman Hays Consulting who is helping to draft policy against spam for the marketing industry, said that the issue will be better fought by reaching the people using direct e-mail marketing as an advertising venue. Many companies selling products or services would have better luck targeting a specific audience rather than blanketing mailing lists with spam, Gavin said. Many marketing professionals fall victim to the fallacy that distributing mass e-mail is low cost.

"The Net is not a free resource," Gavin said. "Somebody pays for everything that gets done on the Internet. There is always a cost associated with sending an e-mail."

The cost is hard to calculate, Gavin said, but includes the resources ISPs use to deal with large amounts of data being sent over their networks. The cost is also borne by consumers who have to pay for the time it takes to download spam through their ISP. In fact, the European Commission said in a report earlier this year that spam costs European Internet users about 10 billion Euros (US$857 million) every year in money spent on Internet connectivity. [See, "EU: spam costs users 10 billion euros a year," Feb. 2.]Since the early 1990s, when America Online Inc. first took its service to consumers, the Internet has became a gold mine for direct marketers, according to Geller. Since then, marketing scams such as Ponzi and pyramid schemes have migrated from mail and newspaper advertisements to the less costly medium. And there may be no way to get rid of spam if governments, marketers and consumers don't come to a consensus on a solution.

"I remember e-mail before there was ever marketing, when it was just a bunch of techies chatting online," Geller said.

Unfortunately, he noted, those days are history.