Microsoft declares
war on spam

18 Jun 2003

Microsoft has launched a four-pronged attack on spam in an effort to combat the estimated €2.5bn in productivity lost every year as a result of spam or unsolicited email, which now accounts for over 50pc of email traffic.

Microsoft already blocks 2.4 billion spam messages each day or 80pc of email messages reaching its Hotmail servers. The highest profile element of the new campaign is the legal action Microsoft is taking against spammers. The company yesterday filed lawsuits against 15 groups of individuals and companies that it accuses of being behind the deluge of unsolicited messages swamping the internet.

Microsoft took legal action under both the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and Washington state anti-spam legisation. Twelve of the suits were filed in Washington state. One suit was filed in a California state court and two were filed in the UK.

Microsoft’s Hotmail service, which has 140 million members, is a prime target for spammers, as are the webmail services of all the main internet service providers such as AOL and Yahoo!

The other three elements of Microsoft’s initiative are developing anti-spam technology; working with regulators to help implement anti-spam legislation and educating users and systems administrators about the spam threat. Microsoft is rolling out a new website, MSNSpamCentral, to support its anti-spam drive.

“We at Microsoft are ramping up our efforts to combat spam,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, told a news conference yesterday.

In Ireland, spam is becoming just as big a problem as elsewhere, according to Cormac Callanan, former chairman of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI). “Spam is becoming a really serious problem now. It was a nuisance before but now it’s really getting to people. Current figures are suggesting that anything from 60 to 70pc of people’s mailboxes is spam. This sort of level is just not acceptable. Also, the tone of some of the stuff is very offensive, especially if you have children receiving it and the statistics suggest that children are receiving it.”

Callanan argued that governments’ unwillingness to ban spam is one of the key factors driving its growth. “The ISPs have been fighting for years for spam to be made illegal but that has not happened in many cases. However, the US is finally about to enact a number of anti-spam laws. For years they wouldn’t do it for reasons of free speech but they’re now accepting that it’s hard to have free speech when you’re being inundated with spam the whole time.”

A complicating issue, he noted, is that although a few large ISPs are involved in the anti-spam crusade, the ISP community is far from united on the issue. He pointed out that a number of ISPs – though not Irish-based ones – habitually sell their mailing lists to third parties and these would not support a blanket ban on spam because they benefit commercially from the practice.

Callanan accepted that simply banning spam will not in itself eliminate the practice but he argues that it shows the right intent on the part of governments.

Although spam is currently not banned in the EU, much tighter controls will take effect later this year when European Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications is transposed into the laws of member states (including Ireland). The directive extends limitations on junk mail to all forms of electronic communications including spam and text messages to mobile phones. It will mean that those receiving spam and SMS messages will have to give their prior agreement, except where there is an existing customer relationship in place.

Another initiative aimed at curbing spam in Ireland is a proposed Code of Practice on unsolicited email. The code’s key provision is that spammers must tag their messages as spam using words like ‘ADV’ (for advert) in the subject line but the final wording has yet to be agreed between the Department of Public Enterprise, Trade & Employment and the ISPAI.

By Brian Skelly