James Gleick, the science writer, had an article on spam in Sunday’s NY Times. Like Jon Udell, I found it disappointingly superficial — I could say the same about some of Gleick’s other writing.
Spam will be hard to legislate out of existence, mostly because of the Net’s global nature. I already receive a fair amount of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese spam, and a little in German. Perhaps, sooner or later, all these countries will pass legislation with teeth to crack down on spammers, but right now, even the USA doesn’t have any.
I already use Spam Assassin, and recommend it highly. It catches most of my spam, but about ten pieces slip past every day (I’m not sure how much I get, but I believe it’s about 100 pieces/day). My mail client, Apple’s mail.app, catches about half of the rest. We could do better–especially because I probably have a small number of false-positives, which bugs me a bit.
Here’s what I’d like to see:
Better collaborative filtering: mail.app already allows you to flag a message as spam, which refines an internal spam-filtering algorithm. This could be extended by submitting the offending message to a central database, which would then push out updates on a regular basis. Such software once existed on the Mac, called Spam Blaster. It was effective, but it was put out of business by Sound Blaster for infringing its trademark on anything with “Blaster” in the name. I believe that Spam Assassin also uses a small number of people to feed new spam into the system, but it can’t be as effective as a massively collaborative system.
Pay: I’d be happy to see a system put in place where everyone pays, say, $10 into an escrow account. If you try to e-mail me and you aren’t on my whitelist, one penny is deducted from your account (I don’t particularly care where the money goes — give it to your ISP). After I receive your message, adding you to my whitelist would just require pushing a button. This would effectively end spam, as spammers couldn’t or wouldn’t pay a penny for every piece of mail sent out. For individuals, though, it would take a long time to work down that $10–that’s sending e-mail to 1,000 new people.
The latter scheme would require some pretty basic architectural changes in the way e-mail works. But considering the gyrations ISPs and individuals are going to already, it’d be worth it. A bigger problem is that it is somewhat undemocratic and bureaucratic: it assumes that everyone has $10 to spare, and the creation of an escrow system (though the system could probably be funded on the interest of the escrowed money).
The former scheme would be somewhat less effective, but could get up and running quickly. Services like Spamcop are doing this now, but for a fee, and inconvenient if you don’t want an @spamcop,net address. It would be worth it for companies like AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo to run the back-end of a service like this as a free service, simply because they are so relentlessly hammered by spam.