Standards group takes aim at spam

An influential Net standards-setting body begins a close scrutiny of the problem of e-mail spam, in an effort that could have big implications for future e-mail use and security.

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An influential Internet standards-setting body has begun a close scrutiny of the mounting problem of e-mail spam, in an effort that could have broad-ranging implications for future e-mail use and security.

An official Anti-Spam Research Group has been convened under the auspices of the Internet Research Task Force, a loose organization affiliated with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF has traditionally been responsible for standardizing basic Net technologies such as e-mail, data transfer protocols and Internet addresses, among a host of other issues.

The new group is an open research body without any policy-setting power, but its findings could ultimately change the way e-mail is handled by Internet service providers and networks.

"Once considered a nuisance, spam has grown to account for a large percentage of the mail volume on the Internet," the group's Web site reads. "The purpose of the (research group) is to understand the problem and collectively propose and evaluate solutions to the problem."

The research group is a potentially influential voice in a mounting chorus calling for new approaches to an epidemic of spam. According to spam-fighter Brightmail, unsolicited bulk mail volumes skyrocketed last year, now accounting for close to a third of all traffic on the Internet, up from just 8 percent of traffic in mid-2001.

A handful of companies, including Brightmail and CipherTrust, provide network or desktop tools aimed at identifying and weeding out spam before it clogs e-mail boxes.

Those efforts have exacerbated an arms race between bulk e-mailers and antispam forces, however. Spammers have become increasingly creative in masking their messages in ways that will evade the filters and may appear to recipients to be legitimate messages.

Filtering techniques have also wound up overblocking, angering some Net customers, who say they have lost significant amounts of genuine mail. A new group formed by commercial e-mail marketers last month is soliciting reports of consumers' lost mail, saying it is trying to help the filter companies become more accurate.

The new Anti-Spam Working Group, formed late last month, will focus first on classifying different kinds of spam and antispam proposals, according to the group's charter. Possible ideas to explore are ways of building in consent policies for different types of communications and allowing networks or individuals to reject e-mail that does not meet particular standards, according to the group.

The group will also study ways to track down spammers, who are often difficult to identify.

Most of these ideas would require changes in basic e-mail technology, a process that could take several years or more in front of the IETF standards body if the ideas prove to be controversial.

The task force will hold its first meeting March 20 at the IETF's San Francisco gathering. An e-mail list has already been set up to discuss the issues.

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