E-mail commerce vs. politics

Solving the nation's spam problem will require a balancing act, legal and privacy experts said today in Washington, D.C., at a meeting sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission.

Dubbed the E-mail Authentication Summit, the meeting drew several hundred software industry officials, users and others to discuss the policy and technical implications of adopting industrywide standards for dealing with unwanted commercial e-mail by accurately identifying — or authenticating — who is sending it.

Once identified, spammers can be prosecuted under antifraud laws.

If industry adopts such standards, care must be taken to balance people's right to be rid of unwanted commercial e-mail and users' 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.

At the two-day summit, vendors will present their technical approaches to eliminating spam — some of them encryption-based and others based on IP. Regardless of approach, any changes to current spam-filtering practices 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, adding that making it secure poses challenges similar to making the U.S. Postal Service's system anthrax-resistant. Although a number of proposals would give Internet service providers a new role in curbing the most egregious spammers, no proposal is ready for prime time, he said.

In the morning session, Microsoft's intellectual property and licensing director sparred with a fellow panelist from Apache Software Foundation over Microsoft officials' desire to license components of open source anti-spam software. "We want to see an open and competitive landscape for [e-mail] authentication standards," said Daniel Quinlan, vice president of Apache Software Foundation, which represents open-source software developers.

David Kaefer, director of business development for intellectual property and licensing at Microsoft, said parties interested in e-mail authentication must find common ground for open-source and intellectual property rights to coexist.

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