REDMOND, Wash., April 28, 2003 — Between all the pitches and the promises, the cure-alls and the come-ons, spam is making it harder and harder to communicate via e-mail. But the technology industry is getting tough right back. Fed up with spam, some of the top providers of Internet services today are rallying against what’s officially known as “unsolicited commercial e-mail” by joining forces to curb it.
Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo are in agreement that eradicating spam will require a collective, industry-wide approach. To learn more about this agreement and what’s behind the effort, PressPass talked to two people at Microsoft who’ve been working actively on the anti-spam front: Brian Arbogast , corporate vice president in Microsoft’s MSN and Personal Services Division (and the executive sponsor for the privacy pillar of the company’s Trustworthy Computing initiative), and Ryan Hamlin , general manager of Microsoft’s Safety Technology and Strategy Group.
PressPass: What motivated Microsoft to take part in the collective industry anti-spam effort you announced today with AOL and Yahoo?
Arbogast: Microsoft recognizes that addressing spam effectively will require the cooperation of the entire industry to define new standards that all major players in the e-mail ecosystem can ascribe to. With that in mind, we are working with other large ISPs such as AOL and Yahoo to help identify open standards that we can all build on to guide the industry. We think such collective efforts will help minimize the amount of spam that reaches users’ Inboxes.
PressPass: How do you see industry initiatives like this fitting in with Microsoft’s anti-spam efforts?
Hamlin: Industry initiatives are a key part of our anti-spam work. There are some things that Microsoft can solve for our customers within our own products and services, but other aspects of the spam problem require broader cooperation to solve. Those collaborative efforts extend to other technology vendors and ISPs, as well as to legislators and the people charged with enforcing the law, whether that’s the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) or state attorneys general.
PressPass: Why are we suddenly seeing an elevated level of industry concern around spam?
Arbogast: Besides the nuisance factor to all of us who receive huge quantities of unwanted messages, the spam problem has introduced massive costs all through the e-mail ecosystem. Enterprises, ISPs and consumers are all spending time and money trying to rid their Inboxes of junk e-mail. And the fact that valid messages sometimes get lost in the filtering process makes e-mail a less viable mechanism for e-commerce, which is a serious concern.
PressPass: Can you summarize Microsoft’s position on spam?
Arbogast: Microsoft recognizes that the explosion of spam has created a crisis in terms of the usefulness of e-mail as a communication medium. To make matters worse, spam is often offensive and can prey on less sophisticated e-mail users, like our children, imposing genuine threats to personal security and privacy. However, we believe that a combination of technology, industry self-regulation, effective legislation and targeted enforcement can turn back the tide. A multi-pronged initiative is necessary because spam is a complex challenge.
PressPass: Ryan, why did Microsoft form an anti-spam group?
Hamlin: Although people in various groups at Microsoft have been working on solutions to the spam problem for some time, Microsoft realized that a coordinated, cross-company approach would have a greater effect on the spam epidemic, which affects a number of our products and services. The Anti-Spam Technology and Strategy Group brings together the right people across Microsoft to drive a comprehensive solution to the spam problem — everything from the technology we need to build to the industry alliances we need to forge.
PressPass: How is Microsoft’s Anti-Spam Technology and Strategy Group structured, and what role do you play as its general manager?
Hamlin: The group is comprised of people representing different backgrounds and drawn from across the company. It functions as a centralized team, integrating all Microsoft’s anti-spam strategy and technology efforts and serving as a company-wide resource. The group has a strong research and development component, which means we’ll develop new, innovative technologies to better protect customers in products such as MSN, Outlook, Exchange and Hotmail Along with coordinating Microsoft’s anti-spam strategy, my role as general manager is to oversee the technical development of anti-spam technologies.
PressPass: In your estimation, how grave is the spam problem?
Arbogast: If we were to stay on the current trajectory, we could only expect e-mail to become less and less valuable. But there’s no reason to be alarmist; we’re nowhere near throwing in the towel. In fact, I am convinced that a combination of innovative technology, industry self-regulation, effective legislation and targeted enforcement can turn this trend around and make the entire e-mail ecosystem as effective as it once was.
PressPass: How does Microsoft propose to curb spam?
Hamlin: We’re focused on a number of efforts that will make it easier to distinguish “good” e-mail from unwanted e-mail in many different ways, such as investing in filtering capabilities and providing more reliable input to filtering technology and coming up with ways to verify whether the senders of messages are who they say they are. In the future, we can develop ways to determine whether e-mail senders ascribe to a set of guidelines that prove them as responsible citizens in the e-mail ecosystem. We’re also interested in helping legislators draft new laws that will allow targeted enforcement against people who abuse the e-mail system at low cost to themselves but high cost to consumers, enterprises and ISPs.
PressPass: What has Microsoft done so far to combat spam from a technology perspective?
Hamlin: Over the past year, we’ve begun to roll out anti-spam technology features in our products, such as MSN 8 and the upcoming release of Outlook in Office 2003. We continue to invest in making these filtering capabilities more and more effective.
PressPass: Do you see a need for more legislation in this space?
Arbogast: We view legislation as a key part of combating spam, and are actively encouraging stronger laws. For example, we’ve been suggesting stronger anti-fraud and “anti-harvesting” measures to make it easier to go after the worst spammers. A number of bills have also been proposed that would require unsolicited commercial e-mail to be labeled with tags such as “ADV” in the subject line, to signify that the e-mail is advertising. While this won’t solve any problems all by itself, if this idea were to be combined with innovative e-mail filtering capabilities and a “safe harbor” approach – which would allow commercial e-mail senders to avoid this labeling if they were to reliably commit to a set of industry-accepted e-mail guidelines – we would then have a framework that could give people control over what categories of e-mail reach their Inboxes.
PressPass: This sounds like the industry self-regulation you mentioned earlier. Can you give us an example of how that ties in?
Arbogast: We believe there’s an opportunity for the industry to define what good e-mail practices are, and to develop some open technology standards that can serve as the basis for implementations. We also support the idea of independent e-mail trust authorities that could serve as ongoing resources for certification of senders and customer dispute resolution. We’ve seen similar efforts help in the arena of customer data, with companies such as TRUSTe and BBBOnline providing certification for Web sites and companies that are responsible about how they collect and use customer information. The creation of such trust authorities for e-mail would be a good step forward for the industry.
PressPass: What efforts can we expect to see coming out of Microsoft’s anti-spam team between now and, say, the end of the year?
Hamlin: You’ll see us continue to make progress across all fronts of our anti-spam initiative, from announcements on our technology roadmap to details on proposals that derive from our industry alliances. You’ll see us contribute to ideas and models for the industry to provide self-regulation and frameworks for trusted sender guidelines. And you’ll see us working with legislators and taking further enforcement action along the lines of the lawsuits we’ve filed against illegal spammers in recent months.
PressPass: What efforts do you see Microsoft’s anti-spam team pursuing further down the road?
Hamlin: Long term, we hope to make it very easy for legitimate senders of commercial e-mail to differentiate themselves from spammers. And that, combined with more advanced and aggressive filtering capabilities, should lead to a world where we are less troubled by spam because the software industry and the legal system are working together to minimize the economic viability of spam.
PressPass: Do you envision the spam problem changing in any way over the next year or two?
Arbogast: Our hope is that within 18 to 24 months we’ll all have to worry much less about spam. As the financial returns for spammers – which are considerable today – decrease, spamming will lose its appeal. Technology has already made it much more expensive for spammers to ply their trade, and over the next few years, I’m confident we can make spamming so unattractive a business that our customers will find themselves almost spam-free.