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Stamp It Out

A new proposal aims to bring spam under control

Spam costs you and your employees productivity and computing power. And that means it costs you money. Now money is at the center of a new anti-spam movement. "E-postage" is the concept of attaching virtual stamps to e-mail to reduce unwanted bulk e-mail. The idea is to create a monetary barrier similar to what keeps our physical mailboxes from overflowing.

We can hear the collective groan, "Don't make us pay for e-mail!" That attitude, prevalent among growing businesses that rely on legitimate bulk e-mail, is one block to e-postage proposals. "The only people who seem to be enthusiastic about e-postage are the people who plan to sell you stamps," says John R. Levine, co-author of Fighting Spam for Dummies and co-chair of the Anti-Spam Research Group (http://asrg.sp.am).

Technical and implementation difficulties combined with an aversion to paying extra for e-mail seem to spell doom for e-postage. Still, companies like Goodmail Systems (www.goodmail.com) are pressing forward with their e-postage offerings, and even Microsoft has been moving in that direction.

Another proposal is "hashcash." Hashcash requires a sender's computer to solve a computational problem as proof of good faith. It would tie up spammers' computing resources and cut their ability to send masses of e-mail. Practically, though, it has just as many issues as e-postage. "These days, spammers send all their spam through hijacked PCs. The number of hijacked PCs is enormous. The bad guys have more computing power than the good guys, and they can solve hashcash problems plenty fast," says Levine.

While many anti-spam proposals have more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese, that doesn't mean there's no hope for getting the problem under control. Levine likens fighting spam to finding a cure for cancer. There isn't just one disease and one cure, but many problems and many possible solutions. It will take more effective legislation modeled after the junk-fax law of the 1990s, technical changes for better sender authentication, and a good dose of industry initiative to can spam.

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This article was originally published in the July 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Stamp It Out.

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