November 11, 2005 • Vol.27 Issue 45
Page(s) 25 in print issue
I had a private chat with Steve Ballmer during the MVP summit in late Septemberalong with about 2,000 other MVPs. He opened up the floor to questions, and he (bravely) took my question. I wanted to know what steps Microsoft was taking to clean up the trash flowing into my (and everyone else’s) computer each and every day. It’s gotten to the point that I get over 200 chunks of spam every day.
Reading my mail is like trying to filter drinking water from the stuff they’re pumping out of New Orleans: 95% of the volume is, well, unpalatable. I’m using Outlook Junk mail filters, which trap most of the trash, but for reasons that escape me, these rules run before my rules, so my Junk email folder fills up with messages from China, Korea, Croatia, and Whoknowswhereistan (in character sets I can’t read) along with the usual male body part enhancers, drugs, and stock deals. As a result I have to visually sift through this trash looking for legitimate mail. Like many of us, I expect mail from “random” people with questions, offers for work, and other legitimate issuesbut most of these end up in the Junk mail folder along with the filth. Unless the person is in my (very large) contacts list, there is a 50/50 chance that I’ll never see the message.
Why Do We Have To Visually Filter Our Mail?
I think it’s ridiculous for me or anyone to have to visually scan Junk mail several times a day to find one or two messages from legitimate senders. Having to filter our mail is tantamount to having to remove chunks of sewage from our drinking water as it arrives at the house. Why should we as consumers have to screen, filter, and refine? The content being fed to us should be as pure as spring-fed wateror at least as clean as Newark tap water. When we find a source of pollution, we cap it at the source and fine the company.
The problem with spam is that it comes from unregulated sources and countries that don’t care about these issues or are out of reach of our laws. It’s like the air pollution riding the trans-Pacific jet stream from China’s unregulated factories and coal-fired power plants that ends up in the air we breath here in Redmond. There’s no way to stop it once it’s airborne.
What Is The Industry Proposing?
Steve also told us that Microsoft is doing what it can to help stop spam. I did a bit of research and discovered that Microsoft, along with other email hosts, is denying service to obvious spammers. It's not clear that these pollution sources have been deterred by their efforts. According to Accounting Software Advisor and other sources, Microsoft blocks about 90 billion messages a month, but over 12 billion chunks of spam are sent a day, which leaves 270 billion chunks a month being dumped on our desktops.
We must find a technical solution to this problemand soon. There are new laws to fight junk mail, but the lawyers, politicians, and police aren’t stopping it. They’re too busy searching for fingernail clippers at airports or building bridges to nowhere. Given that the majority of the junk mail I get comes from offshore and those nefarious sources that are (apparently) out of reach of the law, no amount of hot air passed out of Washington’s (or Olympia’s) back end will stop this trash from entering the system.
What Might Help
What might help stop spam is to make it too expensive to send. If it costs $10,000 to send a million messages (a 1-cent charge per message), only the politicians will be able to afford to send out bulk mail to random addresses. This is not a new idea: Robert Metcalfe (the inventor of the Internet along with Al Gore) received death threats when he proposed the idea a few years ago. Bill Gates has also suggested a “governor” approach that would force message generators to perform a calculation that would limit the number of email messages sent per day to a few hundred. This seems like a reasonable approach, but I heard that Microsoft wants to collect a royalty on this patented idea. Of course, companies with more computing horsepower will be able to crack this before long.
Other ideas like providing a traceable “sender-id” for mail, so the authorities could track back to the perpetrator seems unworkable. It assumes the government of Whoknowswhereistan will permit prosecution of their thriving spam businesses. I know there are enough bright minds in the industry to fix this problem; it’s a shame it’s taken this long to agree on a solution and implement it.
Personally, I think we should encourage Tony Soprano to take care of spammers and the idiots who launch worms and viruses. It wouldn’t take many reports of broken legs or smashed computer centers before they’d think twice about polluting our mail streams or defiling our desktops. Let’s hope it does not come to that.