Spam cannot be defeated, Microsoft admits

4 Dec 2003

Unsolicited commercial email or spam has become such a problem that there is virtually no chance of eliminating it, Microsoft’s anti-spam supremo has conceded.

Speaking yesterday to journalists at the European Forum for Electronic Business conference on spam which concludes in Dublin today, George Webb, business manager of Microsoft’s anti-spam technology and strategy group, said that instead the computer industry must work together as a unit to implement a policy of containment.

“It’s too soon to say there will be a world without spam but containment of the problem is possible by concentrating on a number of different areas,” he said.

Webb revealed how the world’s largest software maker and email service provider was in the front line of the spam wars and was dealing with a problem of growing severity. “In 2001 spam accounted for 8pc of email messages. By this summer this figure had grown to over 50pc and month-on-month rises of 20pc are being recorded in some cases. 75-80pc of email messages are now known to be spam,” said Webb. Microsoft revealed some weeks ago that it was blocking spam emails at a rate of 2.4 billion messages a day, a number that would be significantly higher now.

“We’re operating the biggest email service around – Hotmail – and we’re bearing the cost of dealing with spam,” said Webb, who revealed that the scourge was costing Microsoft “comfortably tens of millions of dollars a year” in hardware, network bandwidth and anti-spam personnel.

One of the most worrying aspects of spam, he added, was that consumer confidence in email and the internet was beginning to be eroded. “Consumers are losing trust in email and this has long-term consequences for e-commerce. 25pc of people are using email less because of spam.”

On a more positive note, Webb argued that it was possible to stem the spam epidemic but that it would require a multi-faceted approach. “There is no silver bullet,” he warned.

As part of its Trustworthy Computing initiative launched a year ago, Microsoft advocated a five-pronged approach to fighting spam: adequate anti-spam policy and legislation; enforcement; intra-industry co-operation; consumer education; and technological innovation.

Webb noted that Microsoft was providing the resources to fight spam on all these fronts. For example, along with other technology heavyhitters AOL, Yahoo, BT and Comcast, Microsoft had formed the Anti Spam Technology Alliance, in which forum the companies have agreed to work together on anti-spam initiatives. Also, on the innovation front, Microsoft has developed a new email filtering technology called SmartScreen which is being built into its new email products such as Outlook 2003 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2003.

While the computer industry could do much to combat spam, Webb believed that many persistent spammers could be rooted out through the work of dedicated government investigators. “Following the money trail is critical to tracking down spammers today.”

By Brian Skelly