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Microsoft senses that the spam epidemic is threatening consumer confidence in E-mail, and it's not about to sit back and see one of the areas in which it's invested heavily undermined by unscrupulous entrepreneurs.
More than 200 technologists, E-mail marketers, and consumers gathered Thursday at Microsoft's Mountain View, Calif., campus to hear just how far the vendor plans to go during a discussion with Ryan Hamlin, general manager of Microsoft's anti-spam technology and strategy group. Hamlin set the tone early. "Spam has reached epic proportions, and we have reached a crisis situation," he told the audience during his opening remarks. Of particular concern to Hamlin was the fact that as much as 18% of consumer E-mail users say they'll abandon E-mail if the spam problem doesn't subside over the next 12 months.
Hamlin predicted that, based on its current growth rate of 18% a month, spam would account for 65% of all E-mail within the next year. That explains why Microsoft--which provides E-mail to millions of consumers via its Web-based Hotmail service and its MSN ISP business--is starting to throw considerable weight at the problem. It's pushing for more diligent industry self-regulation--and lobbying legislators for tougher laws on the federal and state level.
Microsoft's self-regulation strategy appears to be consistent. Chief software architect Bill Gates this month proposed to the Federal Trade Commission the development of an industry standard for certifying legitimate E-mail marketers and placing a "trusted sender seal" on their E-mails. In April, Microsoft entered into a partnership with AOL and Yahoo to work together to combat spam, with self-regulation being a key component of the effort. No specific plans have been discussed yet. Hamlin says more details are forthcoming in the next 60 days, including possible participation by additional ISPs.
However, Microsoft's lobbying efforts are proving to be somewhat more judicious. For instance, while Microsoft has expressed support for just about every piece of anti-spam legislation to date, it joined its co-members in the Internet Alliance in sending a letter to the California Senate opposing new legislation, authored by state Sen. Debra Bowen, that would require spammers to obtain "opt-in" permission from users before including them in bulk commercial E-mailings. A spokeswoman for Bowen says the senator is at a loss to explain Microsoft's curious position, given its public stance against spam.
Hamlin says Microsoft firmly supports opt-in requirements when it comes to unsolicited commercial E-mails, but that it believes opt-out--in which it's up to the user to ask to be removed from an E-mail list--is preferable for commercial E-mails sent to users with whom the sender has an existing relationship. Bowen's bill, SB 12, which was approved by the California Senate May 23 but awaits approval by the state assembly and Gov. Gray Davis, is unclear about that distinction, he says.
But a closer review of the bill indicates otherwise. The text of SB 12 says that one of the distinctions of "unsolicited E-mailed documents" is that "the documents are addressed to a recipient with whom the initiator does not have an existing business or personal relationship."
Regardless of any perceived inconsistencies, R. David Lewis, a VP at E-mail marketer Digital Impact who was at the Microsoft event Thursday, says he's relieved that big ISPs such as Microsoft are moving away from using their anti-spam efforts as a marketing differentiator and instead are becoming increasingly committed to solving the problem systemically. Lewis says the overwhelming flow of spam is proving damaging to companies like his that work to establish themselves as trusted E-mail marketers--and he's all for the trusted sender seal Gates has proposed. "If you want that tag, you've got to deserve it," he says. "It's all about accountability."
Legislation and self-regulation notwithstanding, where Microsoft may ultimately have the biggest impact--and where analysts say the greatest hope for neutralizing the spam problem lies--is in the development of new anti-spam technologies to help stem the flow of unwanted E-mail. Among the tools Hamlin said are under development are smart agents, which would throttle spam by detecting related mass-mailings of 500 or more messages; intelligent quarantine filtering, which would use near-real-time anti-spam updates to filter out recently identified spam from quarantined message holding folders; and intelligent whitelisting, which would automatically place on approved whitelists any recipients to whom users have sent multiple messages.
The message to spammers should be clear, Hamlin told the audience Thursday: "We're coming after them."