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Federal spam lawsuits fall short of target

Mark Brunelli, News Director

IT industry players predict that lawsuits filed under the new Can Spam Act do little to deter spammers from sending

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unwanted mass e-mails.

While the law is expected to have some limited effect, experts say that the way to ultimately solve the problem of unsolicited mass e-mail, or spam, lies within the realm of technology. Internet service providers (ISPs) and other businesses, experts say, will continue to rely on server-side antispam filters to protect end users from the daily barrage of unwanted e-mail.

The good news, however, is that antispam filters are getting better and better, says Michael D. Osterman, principal analyst at Black Diamond, Wash.-based Osterman Research Inc.

All but seven of the 222 defendants in the six lawsuits were unnamed.
Steve Kahan, VP Postini Inc.,

"The current generation of systems can stop in the order of 97 to 99% of spam, with almost no false positives," Osterman said. "If you implement a good antispam solution, for the end user, the problem almost completely goes away."

The federal Can Spam Act went into effect Jan. 1, after sailing through Congress and being signed into law by President Bush.

The law stipulates that people who send commercial e-mails with deceptive subject lines -- or those who spoof sender addresses -- could be punished with prison terms. It also gives the Federal Trade Commission new enforcement authority and the option to set up a national "do not spam" registry.

On March 10, several ISPs, including America Online, Microsoft, EarthLink Inc. and Yahoo Inc., filed a total of six lawsuits under the Can Spam Act, against more than 200 defendants. The cases were filed in federal courts in California, Georgia, Virginia and Washington state. The defendants are charged with several violations, including sending millions of unsolicited mass e-mails that use deceptive sales practices and neglect to include electronic unsubscribe options.

Despite the lawsuits, many industry experts, analysts and vendors still have doubts about the potential effectiveness of the law. All agree that it's simply too difficult to track down offenders, many of whom are based overseas and use false return addresses.

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Steve Kahan, a vice president at Redwood City, Calif.-based Postini Inc., a provider of antispam software, said that the major problem with the Can Spam Act can be found simply by looking at the lawsuits filed under it.

"All but seven of the 222 defendants in the six lawsuits were unnamed," Kahan said. "They were named John Doe because the Internet providers hadn't even discerned their true identity."

Joshua Greenbaum, principal analyst with Enterprise Applications Consulting, in Berkeley, Calif., said that he receives more than 100 pieces of spam each day, and he doesn't expect this to change anytime soon. Greenbaum said that California's antispam laws have done little to stem the tide of junk e-mail, and he doesn't think a federal law will be any more effective.

"I don't think that this is going to be an issue that responds very well to legislation," Greenbaum said. "ISPs have to take it upon themselves to block this e-mail."

Greenbaum is also worried that legislation might infringe upon the rights of honest marketers.

"The difference between spam and legitimate direct marketing is a very fine line ... and we don't want to throw away a lot of marketing opportunities for everyone," he said.

"This is a problem with a lot of technical issues. The people writing the laws don't really understand the technology that well and don't really realize the ramifications of sweeping legislative action."

Mark Fouraker, vice president of technical operations for Chicago-based CareerBuilder.com, agreed that it's ultimately up to the ISPs to use technology to block spam on the server side. He estimates that his company, which allows job seekers to e-mail resumes to prospective employers, filters out about 100,000 pieces of spam each day.

"I think the major gateway companies could create something that could reduce spam -- something no different than I'm doing at my little front door to block spam, but on a much larger level," Fouraker said.

Paul Judge, CTO of Alpharetta, Ga.-based CipherTrust Inc., another provider of e-mail filtering software, said that it will take a combination of law, technology and public education to solve the spam problem. "We need to ask, 'How do we make this business unprofitable?'" he said.


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