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Will we get relief from spam?

It’s about time the FTC did something about the influx of spam. 02/02/04 ReleVents hed: Will we get relief from spam? dek: It’s about time the FTC did something about the influx of spam. by James Mathewson

I have written a lot lately about what new technologies will boost productivity in the near future. Improved filtering technologies for e-mail are among those that I consider most important. Current tools, such as those you can configure in Outlook, are fairly crude. Such is the case with all communications technologies that rely on keywords or phrases. Most words in natural language have many subtle meanings; and phrases can be turned this way or that depending on context. Until contextual clues are build into our communications software, filtering, searching, and other similar tasks will remain matters of trial and error.

Add to the dearth of good filtering technology the increase in unwanted spam, and e-mail becomes a productivity drag rather than a time saver. For years I’ve complained in this column about the lack of law enforcement for illegal spam, with no results. But a story on our site Friday gives me some encouragement that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will finally use its power to crack down. After being flooded by 10,000 pieces of forwarded spam every day for more than a year, the FTC finally got the message.

Another effort, described on our site today (Monday), by major electronic direct marketers such as DoubleClick and Microsoft, shows less promise. The group wants to put a trusted sender seal of approval on all unsolicited e-mail that obeys certain privacy rules. Their idea is to duplicate the Web site TRUSTe certification on e-mail. This may offer some relief similar to spam that originates from California with the ADV: prefix. But it won’t go far enough in giving users control over their e-mail. I don’t want to sound like an idealist, but I have two problems with this proposal. First, it is entirely optional if a company wishes to become a Trusted Sender. Just as on the Web, more sites disdain TrustE than use it. Second, most e-mail users want to reduce unsolicited mail of all sorts, whether the sender is trustworthy or not.

A better approach would be to design e-mail technology similar to the Platform for Privacy Preferences (p3P) on the Web. For those unfamiliar with P3P, it is a specification that enables companies like Microsoft to design browsers and plug-ins that in turn give users control over what sites do with their personal information. For those who haven’t noticed, Internet Explorer 6 is P3P-enabled, which will force most commercial Web sites to at least disclose the way they use cookies and such. If a site uses your personal information in an unauthorized way, a red light flashes on the browser and an error message tells you what it is doing. Because of P3P’s rapid implementation, sites that don’t comply with users’ privacy preferences and shun P3P technology will soon find themselves out of business. If e-mail clients were designed with similar technology built in and users could easily filter all e-mail according to their own privacy preferences, productivity would quickly jump forward.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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