Can Spam Be Stopped?

It’s been nearly a decade since spammers and their enemies began evolving

competitively. As with the classic cheetah/gazelle model originally formulated

by Darwin, each time one group becomes a little faster or more agile, its

adversaries develop traits for outwitting and outrunning it.

Only, in the spam wars, the anti-spam gazelles have a little problem: the

cheetahs seem to be winning.

The number of unsolicted commercial electronic messages received by the

average American in 2001 was 571, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. By

2006, Jupiter says, that number will increase to 1,400, with more than 206

billion spam messages going out over the course of the year. While these

numbers are notoriously difficult to calculate, every survey and ISP

record points to dramatic increases in spam, sometimes as much as 300

percent year over year.

The issue of of great interest and frustration to enterprise IT execs, who are finding


the need to solve the spam problem has never been more critical – and it

promises to become more of a problem. Spam leads to multiple costs for the

enterprise, using up valuable bandwidth resources, jamming e-mail servers, and

lowering employee productivity. There is good news: There are many efforts underway to

eradicate spam.

The Spam Resistance

One reliable indicator of the problem’s magnitude is the size of the anti-spam

effort. The range of tools available to ISPs, enterprises and consumers in the

fight against spam grew considerably during the Web bubble.

“There are a huge number of individual projects,” according to Tom

Geller, executive director of advocacy group SpamCon Foundation.

“Some of them are technical, some are complaint focused, some are running


The list includes reporting tools; complaint generators; block-lists like, Spam Prevention Early Warning System (SPEWS) and

Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS); advocacy and legal support groups;

information services like the Register of Known Spam Operators (ROKSO);

and filters of all kinds. If you want to get a sense of the scale of the

anti-spam community, just spend a few minutes browsing the posts on It’s truly staggering.

A Play for Self-Regulation

Simultaneously, heavyweight Web marketers and interactive ad players have been

scrambling to distinguish their services from the bad guys, as well as to

counteract growing calls for government controls on digital marketing.

In one of the biggest such moves, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA),

through its subsidiary, the Association of Interactive Marketing (AIM), has

released online commercial solicitation guidelines in an effort “to promote

high ethical standards among marketers.” The rules require that members let

e-mail recipients know how they can refuse future mailings and allow consumers

to prevent the sale or rental of their addresses.

“The guidelines demonstrate that industry self-regulation is working,” said

DMA president and chief executive H. Robert Wientzen. “The guidelines

are fair to consumers and marketers alike.” (Contrary to Wientzen’s remark,

it’s not clear that self regulation is what all members of the DMA want, a point we’ll examine later.)

The DMA rules require that members give opt-out information for sold, rented

or exchanged consumer information. Additionally, every e-mail must reveal the

marketer’s identity, and the subject line must be “clear, honest, and not

misleading.” Marketers must also offer a detailed disclosure of each sender’s

use of customer info, offline contact information, and a statement of

adherence to the standards.

ISPs, for their part, are feeling real pressure from network administrators

and their customers to block spammers from their e-mail servers — pressure

that goes beyond the typical complaint and reporting methods. Many

spam-supporting ISPs are even finding themselves on the receiving end of

denial-of-service attacks.

Still Not Enough

All of this is insufficient for the gazelle to protect itself, however.

“Technical approaches are unlikely ever to eradicate spam,” according to David

Sorkin, associate professor of law at the the John Marshall Law School. “(This

is) partly because of the time and resources that spammers devote to their

activities and partly because of the inherent openness of the Internet and

e-mail protocols. ”