Gates, Microsoft Draw Line in the Sand for Spam

In the most recent example in a long line of posturing about spam, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates detailed his company's antispam technology road map to customers again yesterday. The news is exciting but, like most Microsoft security plans, the technology would be more exciting if it were ready now, not at some indeterminate time in the future. I'm amazed that the irony of Microsoft's inability to stem the flow of spam appears lost on Gates, who in recent years has settled into a role of technology seer and wastes much of his time touting past successes and milestones to the public. Message to Gates: It's time to stop reflecting on the past. We're drowning under a mountain of spam right now.
   
So what has Microsoft done for us lately? According to Gates, the company "blocks billions of junk email" messages every day, by which I presume he means for MSN Hotmail customers, not for paid users of Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Office Outlook, and Outlook Express. He noted that "spamming has become a more difficult and less rewarding business," which is true only for the handful of spammers who have been brought to justice, not for the vast majority of them. (If you're keeping score, incidentally, Microsoft's investment in the prosecution of spammers is 14 antispam lawyers and 90 pending legal cases.)
   
Gates also touted the deployment of SmartScreen Technology, which is available to MSN, MSN Hotmail, and Outlook 2003 customers. After releasing a SmartScreen version for Exchange Server 2003 to only its Select License customers last year, the company also added the technology to Exchange 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1) this spring. "SmartScreen has been blocking more than 95 percent of all incoming spam--an average of nearly 3 billion messages every day," Gates said. But that's not enough. In fact, the company almost seems to have done nothing about spam.
   
To be fair, Gates admitted as much. "The actions of spammers over the past year have reinforced our conviction that current filtering technologies are not enough," he said. "Knowing that only a small percentage of their output will get past today's filters, spammers have responded by significantly cranking up the volume of emails they send. So networks are burdened with even more junk than before. According to some surveys, email traffic now consists of nearly four spam messages for every legitimate one." My personal experience is even more lopsided. Since April 1, I've received more than 7100 legitimate email messages but my server-side spam filters have stopped more than 65,000 junk messages. Lately, an additional 50 to 100 junk messages per day have been getting past my server-side junk-mail filters, forcing me to adopt, once again, a client-side solution. Every day I spend an hour or more on this mess that I'll never get back.
   
Finally, Gates outlined Microsoft's antispam technology vision. To be clear, this is Vision with a capital V: The AntiSpam Technology Vision. He mentioned the recent industrywide agreement through the Anti-Spam Technical Alliance (ASTA), an industry group that includes AOL, British Telecom (BT), Comcast, EarthLink, Microsoft, and Yahoo!. "\[ASTA\] members, who provide a large majority of the world's email inboxes, endorsed a set of antispam best practices for email service providers and large senders," Gates said. "Microsoft and other leaders of \[ASTA\] also agreed to promote broad industry testing of proposals to combat email forgery, known as domain spoofing--the use of false From: addresses to make a message appear to be from a legitimate sender." Thanks to the Sender ID standard that Microsoft and other ASTA members have agreed to implement, the world's largest email providers will block spam and help legitimate email messages travel through spam filters fairly effortlessly. The technology sounds wonderful. ETA? "Over the next 12 months," Gates said. My opinion? That's not soon enough.
   
Microsoft has posted a version of Gates's letter on its Web site for people who are interested in the company's antispam vision--excuse me, Vision. A year from now, I fully expect to see a similar letter touting the antispam advances Microsoft will make during the next 12 months. I also expect spam to have become an even bigger problem by that time, leading me to my own negative vision for antispam solutions: Not enough; not soon enough.

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