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Commentary: Turning the tide against spam

While the short-term goal is to regulate e-mail at the state and national levels, the wider goal is to control junk e-mail throughout the entire Web--where political boundaries are moot.

By Joyce Graff, Gartner Analyst

The junk e-mail that clutters electronic mailboxes is an increasing business problem.

Businesspeople are being bombarded with fraudulent requests and offers, hampering their ability to make the right decisions. Spam is on the upswing--it increased at least fivefold in 2001.

Marketing messages arriving in your e-mail

See news story:
Privacy group to put seal on spam
may be from legitimate businesses or they may be from fraudulent organizations just looking for attention. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two. E-mail recipients would prefer to have junk mail and fraudulent offers blocked from their mailboxes by Internet service providers or a company firewall.

Legitimate offers are welcome, but only at the discretion of the recipient. For example, someone looking for a good price on an automobile could agree to receive pricing information via e-mail from a specific car dealer. Some kind of checkpoint is necessary to determine whether such an agreement has been made and that the sender has access to the recipient's mailbox.

The challenge has been to separate the good guys from the bad guys in the minds of the recipients and in the analysis of the spam-control utilities. Opt-in marketing and customer relationship management programs are one way to ensure that materials sent are really desired and to allow the recipient to unsubscribe from receiving messages when the need is over. For example, once a person seeking an automobile has purchased it, all car dealership promotional mailing should cease according to the recipient's order.

Recipients have been faced with a daunting problem. Requesting to unsubscribe sometimes brings the desired consequence and sometimes doesn't. A legitimate company will usually remove the address from its mailing list upon request. A spammer, however, will view the unsubscribe request as proof that your mailbox is active and will continue to pollute it with more unwanted spam. So, how do you tell the difference between a legitimate, ethical sender and a spammer?

The Direct Marketing Association recently announced mandatory guidelines calling for members to add tags to the headers of commercial e-mail. That is a good first step. A necessary second step must be to ensure that spammers find it difficult to emulate the tagging behavior. After all, tags are useful, but anybody can add a tag.

Privacy seal group Truste provides a global privacy certification and seal program. Its seal is rated by Nielsen as one of the most trusted and visible on the Internet. Truste's latest initiative, Trusted Sender, enables recipients to verify whether senders subscribe to the privacy principles and ethical marketing practices of Truste. Trusted Sender also ensures that subscribers remain loyal to those practices through a dispute resolution process moderated by Truste.

Gartner expects additional initiatives aimed at brand-name protection, authentication of the sender, and establishment of trust relationships between sender and recipient.

While the short-term goal is to head off efforts to regulate e-mail at the state and national levels in the United States and Europe, the wider goal is to control such activities throughout the entire Internet--where political boundaries are essentially meaningless. Most spammers are based in the United States, but spam attacks are launched from unsuspecting messaging servers worldwide. Government regulation would more likely serve to push legitimate marketing efforts offshore than to truly control the behavior of fraudulent spammers.

(For related commentary on a recent anti-spam ruling in California, see

Entire contents, Copyright © 2002 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.