The top three e-mail service providers are pooling their resources and technical expertise to reduce unwanted commercial solicitations, or spam, that is inundating their systems.
America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft on Monday sketched a broad outline that calls for technical changes to e-mail to make it more difficult to send the widely reviled messages. Among the steps are plans to hinder spammers from creating multiple fraudulent e-mail accounts in bulk and to determine the real identity of the senders.
The three companies said they would work with organizations across the industry to drive technical standards and guidelines that will work for any software or hardware systems. They also said they would work with companies that regularly communicate with consumers and businesses through e-mail to help them become aware of what is considered spam.
One of the most oppressive aspects of connecting to the Net is spam, which wreaks havoc on computer users and on Internet companies such as AOL, Microsoft's MSN, Yahoo and EarthLink. AOL and Microsoft recently filed suit separately against individuals and companies that are allegedly blasting spam to their members.
The problem has become so widespread that federal lawmakers are trying to craft policy to punish spammers. Earlier this month, a pair of U.S. senators reintroduced a bill, called the Can-Spam Act, that would make it a federal offense to send spam using false return e-mail addresses. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, also has proposed legislation to combat spam.
At this time, there is no U.S. law regulating spam. But even if there were legislation in place, its reach would be limited because much of the unsolicited mail that floods computer systems emanates from overseas. The Federal Trade Commission, which is holding a spam conference this week, has prosecuted spammers using consumer fraud charges.
AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo have long been fierce competitors, vying for customers for every imaginable Internet service--from e-mail to instant messaging and Internet access services. The newly formed alliance is a telling sign of how the spam deluge has overwhelmed the industry.
"We have been working together through different forums and industry groups for a few months now, and dialogue inevitably began about the explosion of spam. (It) turned into a serious commitment to do right by our members and the Internet medium in general," said Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesman. "So over the past few weeks we seriously hunkered down and flushed out areas of commonality and agreement."
Microsoft said that it had been increasingly receiving complaints from its customers about spam depreciating the value of e-mail by flooding it with an enormous volume of pornographic and get-rich-quick solicitations.
"This (alliance) is about Microsoft, along with AOL and Yahoo, taking the lead and driving progress industrywide that returns the value of e-mail," said Brian Arbogast, vice president of Microsoft's MSN and personal services division. "We and others have been investing a lot in filtering technology and we will continue to innovate in the filtering space, but what we need to do is give the filtering technology more reliable input that can help them differentiate between the good and the bad."
Yahoo said that despite the alliance, the companies involved would also continue their individual efforts in the fight against spam but with the awareness that the problem also must be addressed at an industry level.
"What this (alliance) underscores is that there is a broad industry effort required to effectively and efficiently minimize the spam problem," said Lisa Pollack, Yahoo's senior director of Messaging products. "It does require a multifaceted approach--to look at technology, enforcement, education on how companies communicate with customers. No one party can do it alone."
Most Internet service providers and e-mail services offer technologies to block spam. But in a cat-and-mouse game, the spammers regularly figure out how to bypass the blocks. Because spammers routinely fool individual filters, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo said that a concerted joint effort may be the best way to fight spam.
"Spam is an industrywide challenge, requiring industrywide teamwork, in order to yield industrywide solutions," Ted Leonsis, AOL's vice chairman, said in a statement. "By cooperating and collaborating together, we can make real progress against this toxin that pollutes the Internet environment."
The companies said they will continue to work with law enforcement to deter those who fraudulently skirt antispam filters or otherwise violate applicable law. In this effort, the companies said they would develop better mechanisms for preserving electronic evidence related to spamming activity and cooperate with other Internet service providers to track down spammers.