Who's Best to Oversee Spam Problem?

The British anti-spam group Spamhaus is one of many organizations with plans to rid the world of spam. We've all seen similar press releases from industry heavyweights like Yahoo, AOL, EarthLink and what seems like an endless line of spam-filtering and deliverability companies, research groups, political activists, Maryknoll sisters and one directly from God himself, Bill Gates.

Frankly, I'm over it. Such statements hardly even make headlines anymore. But for some reason, this press release seemed different. Perhaps it was the plan's simplicity. It was nice to read about a spam-fighting program that didn't require unprecedented industry cooperation and a mass adoption of a new technology. Or one that won't be available for seven to nine months, if ever.

Spamhaus' plan, announced earlier this spring, involves the creation of a new Internet domain called “dot-mail.” Under Spamhaus' dot-mail plan, responsible marketers will have direct access to their customers' e-mail inboxes. In other words, they'll be able to enter consumer inboxes without first having to pass through spam filters or other barriers.

At first glance, this appears brilliant. It is simple, fairly easy to implement and, most importantly, effective. The main issue I have with dot-mail is that Spamhaus will run it. And I have a feeling that I'm not alone. I'm hardly a xenophobe, but I'm concerned that Spamhaus, a British organization, would be in charge of a large slice of U.S. commercial e-mail. I know that the analogy isn't perfect, but imagine a foreign company being put in charge of delivering U.S. First-Class mail. It just doesn't seem right, does it?

Perhaps the larger issue, though, has more to do with who Spamhaus is rather than where Spamhaus is from. A perception exists in the marketplace that Spamhaus is a bit of a radical organization. And if it were given the power to decide who gets to use dot-mail, and who doesn't, the perception is that Spamhaus would be arbitrary in its decisions.

I realize that I'm making a strong accusation. However, I've worked with a number of e-mail service providers over the years, and each has had a client or two who ended up on Spamhaus' list of spammers when they probably didn't deserve it. One of them was a well-known nonprofit organization that sends a monthly newsletter to an extremely small list. I find it hard to believe that it was doing anything that would merit the spammer label.

Along those lines, I read a Washington Post article that discussed how some of the major ISPs would be reluctant to cede control to Spamhaus. I would add most of the major ESPs (Digital Impact, Cheetahmail, Yesmail, Bigfoot) as well as the major e-mail advertisers to that list of companies who'd be uncomfortable with Spamhaus deciding who's naughty and who's nice. No offense, Spamhaus, but sometimes perception is everything. So with Spamhaus in charge, dot-mail appears to face an uphill battle.

But this begs the question: What if dot-mail were run by another organization? If spearheaded by a group perceived as both objective and fair, dot-mail would make a lot of sense.

Just for the record, I'm making a huge assumption here. I'm assuming that Spamhaus would rather see another organization run with its dot-mail idea than watch it fall down entirely. I'm not qualified to make that assumption, but let me just say this. I do know that Spamhaus wants to rid the world of spam. If dot-mail could go a long way toward achieving that goal, I can't imagine that Spamhaus would stand in the way. After all, my experience is that the British are a very reasonable bunch.

So, just for laughs, I put together a short list of groups who potentially could run dot-mail and provided a brief sketch on each group's effectiveness.

1. The FTC. Some industry experts have a natural aversion to supplying any part of the government with additional regulatory power on issues pertaining to consumer privacy. But I think this may make sense. The FTC is already charged with investigating spam complaints, so it's in a great position to know who's spamming and who is not. If it were up to me, I'd take whatever funds are going into evaluating and/or implementing a conceptually flawed do-not-e-mail list and plow them into setting up a dot-mail domain.

2. The Direct Marketing Association. The DMA certainly has credibility among a large percentage of the industry. Both the best and the worst part of this solution is that it would require the DMA to enforce privacy standards and weed out marketers who aren't doing the right thing.

To date, it sure doesn't seem like the DMA has been comfortable playing the role of enforcer, particularly with its paying members. On the other hand, this would give the DMA a fantastic opportunity to build credibility with those of us who think it's dropped the ball on issues of consumer privacy. I really like this one.

3. A joint venture created and managed by the ISPs. Most of the major ISPs are coming together to tackle the spam problem already, so this may not be such a stretch. And the ISPs generally are objective, even agnostic on issues of spam. The only potential issue is that some marketers may object to ceding additional power to the ISPs. As it is, many marketers feel they have to jump through all kinds of hoops just to ensure that their messages get through the larger ISPs. This is particularly true of the ISPs located in Virginia.

In any event, dot-mail is an interesting program, one that I think merits further discussion. In the spirit of creating an open dialogue, I'd like to hear your comments. E-mail me at [email protected] Tell me which of the three groups you'd prefer to see administering dot-mail. Tell me if you think there are organizations that would do a better job of it than the ones I've listed here. Or tell me if you believe that dot-mail won't work and why. I'll let you know the results.

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