April 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

The battle between good e-mail and bad e-mail

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Ease of use

They may be available as early as this summer and be fairly easy for marketers to implement, says Eric Allman, CTO of Sendmail Inc., an e-mail service provider. He notes that an in-house IT staff should have no trouble publishing its e-mail policies to the DNS, for which Microsoft publishes detailed instructions on its web site.

In addition, software should soon be available for deploying Yahoo’s Domain Key system. “We’re supporting both Caller ID and Domain Key,” Allman says, “because once you have authentication, it will make the use of spammers’ zombie machines more difficult.” Zombies are computer servers that send spam, often without the server owner’s knowledge, after being attacked by a network virus designed by spammers, Allman says, noting that as much as 80% of spam could be coming through viruses.

Because spammers may figure out ways to get around e-mail authentication systems, the e-mail industry is also working on two methods to make it economically infeasible for spammers to do business. One is “challenge response,” which Microsoft and others are researching as a way to require suspected spammers to solve computational puzzles before their e-mail could arrive in inboxes. The system might be set up so that any e-mail address not listed in a consumer’s address book or “white list” would trigger an automatic bounce-back along with a task intended to be solved by a person, such as identifying a picture or completing a mathematical puzzle. Ideally, this would block spam sent automatically from hacked servers as well as make it too time-consuming and costly for spammers to address personally, since spammers rely on sending hundreds of thousands of e-mails a day to get a small response.

But challenge response has its limitations, experts say. For example, it would interfere with retailers sending order confirmations to customers who hadn’t thought to include them in their address book. And some spammers might be able to allocate enough computer power to get around the puzzles fast enough to do business.


A more effective, long-term solution, Anderson says, is forcing high-volume e-mail senders to pay a fee per sent e-mail. Research for a way to implement such a fee is under way. This system would require all large e-mailers to register their domains with a third-party service that would serve as a fee-imposing clearinghouse. Although the ISPs have yet to speak publicly about working with such a fee-imposing gateway, experts say it offers clear advantages to ISPs as well as corporate and consumer recipients of e-mail, while promising to kill the business case for sending spam.

A fee system, which would work in coordination with authentication services like Caller ID and Domain Key, would be set up so that ISPs would check the identity of the sender in the Domain Name Service and check the volume of e-mail sent with an additional online registry. The registry, operating under standards set by an industry governing board, would periodically tally e-mail volume from individual marketers and send them an invoice. The collected funds would then be distributed to the ISPs or corporations channeling the e-mail to inboxes, helping to pay for the ISPs’ costs of filtering spam.

Forrester proposes that an e-mail gateway system would be owned by ISPs, of which there are some 18,000, following the model of Visa and MasterCard, which are owned by thousands of financial institutions that issue credit cards. The typical gateway fee, which could kick in at, say, a threshold of 1,000 e-mails per month, would amount to $2.50 per thousand e-mail messages, a tiny amount compared to the cost range of $50-$300 per thousand for building or renting permission-based e-mail lists, Forrester says in a December 2003 report, “The Real Answer to the Spam Problem.”

But while the gateway fee would amount to a tiny cost for legitimate marketers, Forrester adds, it could force spammers out of business. “A charge of $2.50 would add $2,500 to the cost of a 1 million-message campaign, seriously undermining spam’s economics, in which names are acquired free through harvesting and sending e-mail costs as little as 10 cents per thousand,” or $100 per million, Forrester says. Although it may be years away, the fee-based idea is gaining acceptance in the e-mail industry. “There is certainly more openness to that idea than there was a year ago, but there’s a lot more work to be done,” says Helen Roberts, COO of e-mail service provider Responsys Inc.

Getting to open

But even if the drive to rid the world of the most offensive spammers is successful, legitimate marketers will still face the pressure of using e-mail in a way that gets consumers to open the messages. With all the new techniques that marketers are learning along with the new tools of the trade, e-mail should continue as an effective means of building customer relationships, says Hall of Buy.com.

“I see e-mail continuing to be a good marketing tool, as long as customers get what they want out of e-mails,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, that’s what e-mail marketing is all about-delivering relevant messages to customers.”




What`s in CAN-Spam

The federal CAN-Spam Act, which became effective Jan. 1, includes several provisions intended to clearly identify e-mail senders while giving recipients control over receiving future messages. The law prohibits marketers from using misleading "from" or "subject" headers in e-mail messages, and it requires them to identify their physical location by including their postal address within the text of the e-mail message.

The law also requires marketers to place an opt-out link within each e-mail message, and the opt-out feature must also give e-mail recipients the option of telling senders to halt all segments of their marketing campaigns. The latter measure is intended to let consumers choose only those parts of e-mail campaigns that suit their interests. The law requires marketers to remove or suppress opt-outs within 10 days.

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