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Tech firms tackle spam

Several major technology companies convene in San Francisco to discuss solutions to a frustrating common denominator among them: unwanted e-mail.

SAN FRANCISCO--Several major technology companies convened here on Friday to discuss solutions to a frustrating common denominator among them: spam.

Representatives from Yahoo, Dell Computer, Oracle, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, AOL Time Warner and DoubleClick, among others, gathered at CNET Networks for a second meeting this year to talk about the problem unsolicited bulk e-mail has created for legitimate marketers, technology developers, Internet service providers and their customers.

The goal of the forum, called JamSpam, is "to produce an open, interoperable antispam specification that serves as a universal solution to both edges of the spam sword," according to the group's mission statement. On one side, there are clear losses to corporate network resources and people's time; and on the other, there are rising unquantifiable losses from legitimate e-mail that goes missing from spam filters.

While the group has yet to formalize or outline an agenda to fight spam, attendees of the forum all have a strong incentive to begin a cooperative discussion about technological solutions to various pieces of the problem. The companies are meeting at a time when junk mail has grown to epidemic proportions. Stephanie Fossan, a senior product manager for EarthLink who attended the all-day meeting, said that the ISP has seen the amount of incoming spam grow about 500 percent in the last 18 months.

"We're here because spam is the No. 1 problem on the Internet and it affects all of us," said Vincent Schiavone, president of ePrivacy Group. "The solution is not technological, not legal, not standardization, but a combination of all of them and it requires cooperation."

"This is a place where e-mailers, Internet service providers, privacy and consumer advocates, and filtering software companies are coming to look at spam from a broad perspective," said Schiavone, whose group has developed a trusted e-mail sender program with privacy-seal group Trustee.

Some of the answers discussed at the meeting included developing e-mail authentication standards to ensure that legitimate messages are recognized and delivered securely, according to Philip Hallam-Baker, principal scientist at VeriSign, an Internet infrastructure provider.

EarthLink's Fossan said that in a special meeting of ISPs and "in-box providers" such as Yahoo's Web-based e-mail, the various companies discussed technological solutions to closing "open relays," which are insecure servers that spammers use to send bulk mail. Companies also are interested in building a system where there is more "transparency" for legitimate messages sent, for instance, discerning whether the e-mail is a newsletter, a bill from an e-commerce site or a message from a friend.

"Everybody is getting on the same page here," Fossan said. "Spam is not one monolithic problem with one monolithic answer, but something that can be fixed in pieces."