Cleaning Up E-Mail

An end to spam?


Thanks to the ingenious CAN-SPAM Act passed by Congress last year, junk e-mail in the United States has been drastically reduced, rendering many inboxes completely spam free.

Just kidding. Despite the new law, spam continues to increase, and recent studies by makers of anti-spam software found that less than 10 percent of junk e-mail complies with CAN-SPAM.

Fortunately, Congress isn't the only group working on the spam problem. The Anti-Spam Technical Alliance (ASTA) is a coalition of some of the largest e-mail providers on the Internet, including Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo!, and Earthlink. In late June it published some proposals designed to slow the onslaught.

Most of the recommendations consist of practices the alliance hopes Internet providers will adopt voluntarily, such as closing mail servers to nonsubscribers and limiting the number of messages per day each user can send. But the most promising suggestion is the anti-forgery technology ASTA members are developing.

The SMTP protocol, used for sending and receiving e-mail, has no built-in way to authenticate senders. Spammers use this weakness to hide their identities and send mail that looks like it's coming from somewhere else. CAN-SPAM makes this illegal, but the law is almost universally ignored. ASTA hopes to create methods to digitally sign content and make this kind of "spoofing" not just illegal but technologically impossible.

If that works, it might finally be possible to make some headway in the battle against junk e-mail.