FTC considers its antispam options

Last week, Federal Trade Commission officials showed their determination for getting the software industry and Internet service providers to stop aggressive spammers.

Many industry officials who attended an antispam meeting in Washington, D.C., last week said they welcomed FTC officials' role in urging the industry to use e-mail authentication technologies. Without such technologies, they said, unwanted commercial e-mail threatens to spoil e-commerce and destroy consumer confidence.

"Spam is creating a crisis of confidence on the Internet and threatening to bring down the killer application, which is e-mail," said Daniel Burton, vice president of governmental affairs at Entrust, an Internet security company.

But solving the nation's spam problem with authentication technologies will require a balancing act, legal and privacy experts say. The two-day meeting was sponsored by the FTC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Dubbed the E-mail Authentication Summit, the session drew several hundred software industry officials, users and others

to discuss the policy and technical implications of adopting industrywide standards for dealing with spam.

If officials at ISPs could accurately identify or authenticate who is sending spam, spammers could be prosecuted under the Can-Spam Act and other antifraud laws, legal experts say.

However, if industry officials adopt technologies to detect spammers' true identities, care must be taken to balance people's right to be rid of spam and others' right to use

e-mail for anonymous political speech, said Duane Berlin, general counsel at the Council of American Survey Research Organizations. "Both sides of the equation are important; both rights exist," he said.

Making the case for protecting anonymous free speech, Paula Bruening, staff counsel at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, said e-mail authentication technologies must offer a mechanism for whistleblowers and others engaged in political speech to send anonymous e-mail messages.

Such messages would not need to be assigned priority delivery, Bruening said, but it should "not be automatically turned back and refused delivery."

At the two-day summit, vendors presented their technical approaches to eliminating spam, some of them based on cryptographic software and others on second-level domain name verification. (In the example abc@ftc.gov, "ftc" is the second-level domain name.)

Regardless of approach, any changes to current spam-filtering practices will pose risks, said John Levine, a principal consultant and software developer at Taughannock Networks.

"The e-mail world is very big and surprisingly fragile," Levine said. Making it secure poses challenges similar to making the U.S. Postal Service's system anthrax-resistant, he said. No proposal offered so far is ready for prime time, he added.

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