DoubleClick: The State of Spam

You'd have to forgive attendees at yesterday's DoubleClick Anti-Spam Summit for wondering whether they unwittingly walked into an old Monty Python skit. The word "spam" and its various permutations (spammer, spamming) were thrown about with such vehemence that the morning-long conference almost had the feel of a pep rally.

Of course, with unwanted email now comprising more than 50% of all email traffic, marketers, ISPs and consumers aren't seeing a whole lot of humor in the massive spam infestation. The 300-odd email marketers who assembled in New York City yesterday heard reps from four of the biggest ISPs (MSN, America Online, Yahoo! and EarthLink) reveal their anti-spam strategies as well as the smartest ways to send electronic missives in a manner that doesn't run afoul of their anti-spam policies. And while little of what was said was truly revelatory - no research was unveiled and even casual observers of the tech space had likely heard most of the tips several times over the last year - the conference presented a rare opportunity to hear the information straight from the horse's mouth.

The morning's speakers, which included ISP spam gurus as well as Federal Trade Commission attorney Renard Francois, DoubleClick chief executive officer Kevin Ryan and DoubleClick chief privacy officer Bennie Smith, issued mostly grim assessments of the current state of spam. They acknowledged, in essence, that they can only do so much about the torrents of unwanted messages that flood just about everybody's e-mailbox every day. "It's the thing that people hate about the Internet," shrugged AOL post master group manager Charles Stiles. Added Francois: "Spam is crippling a revolutionary means of communications and a revolutionary means of marketing."

In his remarks, Francois affirmed what anybody with an email account already knew: that spamming is cheap, easy and difficult to prevent. He reeled off a host of tidbits from the FTC's anti-spam forum earlier this year, the most mind-boggling of which was a semi-repentant spammer's testimony that he can make money if he generates a mere 1/1000th of a percent response to one of his email blasts. Francois also outlined the FTC's preventative tactics, which included the creation of a spam database two years ago and education efforts for both businesses and consumers. But he acknowledged the difficulty of bringing spammers to justice, pointing to one past spamming prosecution that required 24 administrative subpoenas and countless hours of work.

While he said that civil penalties ($11,000 per violation) remain among the organization's options, Francois conceded that most spammers "have few assets to freeze or disgorge." He added that technology-based solutions will probably have a greater impact than enforcement-based ones, and affirmed the FTC's commitment to working alongside tech firms attempting to develop the Mona Lisa of spam eliminators.

The ISP reps didn't offer much more in the way of solace - Microsoft's anti-spam and technology group business manager Kevin Doerr opened his comments by joking that he was "worried [that he] wouldn't be able to offer the room soothing words of comfort." Still, he and his peers trumpeted what he characterized as "incremental gains" in the war against spam. The ISP giants, who often need a mediator before agreeing that the sky is blue, have banded together to fight the problem. Too, each seems to have adopted a similar education-oriented approach.

The bad news, of course, was more abundant. The speakers noted that spammers are counteracting recent crackdowns by turning up the volume - namely, sending more and more messages than ever before. Similarly, they're getting sneakier in their tactics, infiltrating the desktops of unsuspecting computer users and turning them into unwitting spammers. Clearly the ISPs are devoting an enormous amount of attention to anti-spam efforts - devising increasingly sophisticated e-mail filters, stripping e-mail attachments of .exe files - but even Doerr acknowledged that such efforts often "end up being a losing battle."

For example, many ISPs are considering blocking offensive images within e-mail communications - but if the Supreme Court can't decide what exactly constitutes an offensive image, who's to say ISPs will have any more success drawing the line? Similarly, EarthLink abuse team manager Mary Youngblood noted that some smaller ISPs have proposed charging bulk e-mail marketers for incoming messages, but it's impossible to believe that companies wouldn't revolt in the face of such a policy.

As for tips to the marketers in attendance, the ISP spam vigilantes had more than their share of advice. EarthLink's Youngblood suggested that every e-mail should contain an explanation as to why the recipient is receiving it (e.g., "you opted in at our web site"), while AOL's Stiles cautioned companies never to buy e-mail lists. "That's not a direct relationship," he argued. Yahoo! anti-spam specialist Miles Libbey added that marketers should only e-mail customers from legitimate, secure machines dedicated exclusively to their bulk mailings, and that they should honor "unsubscribe" requests in as timely a manner as possible.

While Doerr estimated that the first substantial decline in spam volume could be seen within 12 to 18 months, he and his fellow spam vigilantes didn't deny that some of their anti-spam measures probably have already hurt legitimate e-mail marketers. None downplayed the potential effect on the ISPs themselves if they are unable to curb the of spam. As AOL's Stiles put it, "If [customers] don't think we can stop the spam, they're going to give somebody else the chance to do it."

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