Bryan Flemming knows he is the enemy: as one of the chief officers of a company that sells software for spammers, he has been in the crossfire of the antispamming community for some time.
But now he's trying to turn the tables: like other battle-scarred junk emailers out there, he is trying to create a system where companies can actually send out bulk email legitimately.
It won't be easy--he knows that. Others have tried and failed.
But Flemming, chief executive of Extractor Marketing --a company whose primary product is Extractor, a piece of software that allows people to harvest email names off the Web--thinks he has a workable plan.
The idea, he says, is to create a system where companies will pay Internet service providers a fee for the bandwidth to send out junk email. Under his plan, spammers would be limited by both price and allotted bandwidth, thereby preventing them from the usual scattershot method in which spammers send out as many pieces of email as they can in hopes of randomly hitting someone who will be receptive. Generally, spammers jump from ISP to ISP after being kicked off for sending the bulk email.
Of course, Bulk Center would sell the server software to make all this possible. The software also would include a list of people who don't want to get spam that would be managed by the ISP, not the spammer. And anyone participating in the system would have to adhere to certain rules, such as those banning pornographic or get-rich-quick email campaigns.
They also would be prohibited from sending out email with forged headers, a common practice of spammers, who have been virtually banned by every ISP out there.
Flemming isn't the first one to try to legitimize spam. Others, such as Phil Lawlor, chief executive of backbone Internet provider AGIS, have tried to create systems where "legitimate" spam could be sent. While some questioned his motives, Lawlor had said he wanted to help create a system where spam could be controlled. But ultimately, a disenchanted Lawlor ended the experiment saying that spammers could not be trusted or controlled. He also criticized antispammers, who he accused of attacking his network in retaliation for hosting spammers.
And Sanford Wallace and Walt Rines, two of the Net's most notorious spammers, are teaming up to create a backbone network from which spam can be sent.
If Flemming actually succeeds, he'll be the first.
The problems he will face are many: antispammers whose numbers increase every day and spammers who try to break his rules--plus, for his system to work completely, he'll have to convert virtually every ISP and spammer to his system.
But Flemming still thinks he has a shot at making this work. And if for some reason he does succeed, there are many businesses that have been waiting in the wings for a solution that allows them to send out email advertising without facing a public relations nightmare.
Spam, Flemming says, "has gotten to be a big problem and we are a little bit responsible for that." But, he says, there is a real need for a solution.
"I've gotten email from customers saying we're looking for a way to do this responsibly. An awful lot of our customers would like to go into some regulated system. Right now there's no control over it. Almost all our customers are more than willing to pay the $100 to $200 to do it right."
Flemming has even lined up ISPs willing to give the program a shot.
And, he added, there is a global "remove" list to which all spammers on the network would have to adhere, because the list is carried with the software. That way, people who don't like spam won't get it--at least, not from Extractor.
John Mozena, cofounder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, said he appreciates some of the sentiments of the idea, but adds that it does not represent a solution. Even if antispammers can get off the spam lists, it still would not make spam acceptable, he said.
"I appreciate that they're trying to find a way to be less abusive to the ISPs that they're sending the mail from," he said. "That's certainly a problem."
But, he added, the plan does not address the cost in the way of time and bandwidth on the part of the recipient. There are still costs to the users.
"People hate spam. They find it annoying, and if there's any way they can get rid of it or hide it or protect themselves from it, they're going to do it, no matter whether the ISPs are getting paid for it," Mozena said.
Spam, as it exists, just is not acceptable, he said. People who send it don't have to bear the brunt of the cost, and generally recipients don't get anything out of reading it, he said.
People are willing to accept ads on television, newspapers, and Web sites because theoretically, advertisers are subsidizing a product, making it cheaper to consumers.
Mozena said that by the same token, Netizens have been willing to receive email advertising under certain circumstances: If they sign up to get certain targeted ads or if they get something in exchange for the ads. Free email companies, for instance, give users free email in exchange for being able to send out email.
The only way to make spam work, Mozena said, would be to revamp the entire Internet email system so spammers pay for each email message via e-stamps. But, he noted, that has a high cost as well: everyone would lose free email.
"Until there's some sort of system that addresses the fact that you are using much more resources than you are paying to us, nobody's going to accept it, and it is not going to be a viable long-term kind of thing," he said.