Spam Keeps Coming, but Its Senders Are Wary
Date: January 09, 2004
LAS VEGAS, Jan. 6 - On a garish exhibition floor at Internext, the main trade show for Internet pornographers, Catherine Kouzmanoff handed out cards with a summary of the new federal law banning unwanted commercial e-mail.
She explained to passers-by how her company's software, Robomail, can help high-volume e-mailers comply with the Can Spam Act by inserting their postal address in the mail and by keeping track of recipients who ask to be removed from the sender's mailing list.
"What people actually do with the software," she conceded, "we don't know." Ms. Kouzmanoff is the chief technical officer of Inter7, which is based in Evanston, Ill.
She said her company did little business with companies that send sexually explicit messages, but she exhibits at Internext because mailers of all sorts use the show to find new technology.
By many accounts, the new law, which took effect on Jan. 1, has yet to have much impact on the amount of junk e-mail, or spam, being sent.
Torrents of e-mail messages with cryptic subject lines and from untraceable senders continue to pour into in-boxes, in clear violation of the new law.
There are some marketers who have added post office box addresses to the bottom of their e-mail along with an option to unsubscribe from the mailer's list. But it is too soon to tell if those addresses are valid, or whether requests to be taken off e-mail lists are being honored.
It is clear, however, that the law has gotten the attention of some hard-core spammers, even if it has not cut back their mailing yet. Attendance is down at this year's private meeting of high-volume bulk e-mailers being held in Las Vegas alongside the Internext trade show.
"A lot of mailers have backed out since they think some kind of bust is going to happen," said Alan Ralsky, a major bulk e-mailer who is an organizer of the meeting. Mr. Ralsky, who is based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said he would comply with the new law. No arrests have been made at the meeting. And law enforcement officials say that civil or criminal charges based on violations of the new law will not appear for some time. "You will not see new cases this week," said Stephen Kline, the assistant attorney general of New York State responsible for Internet crime. "These cases still take time to build." The principal authors of the new law - Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat - wrote to Timothy J. Muris, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, asking that cases be brought against spam kingpins this week. But officials at the commission said that bringing actions that quickly was nearly impossible. After all, those who violate the law do so by hiding their identities and it takes time and skilled computer detective work to track them down and build a case.
Ms. Kouzmanoff said users of her company's software were nonetheless preparing for their day in court. "I tell people that just like you have a budget for marketing and for your lease payments," she said, "you now need to have a budget for legal bills." Ms. Kouzmanoff added that she believed that prosecutors were too heavy-handed in their recent cases against mailers.
Still evidence in the e-mail stream suggests violations of the new law are rampant. Postini, a company that filters e-mail for corporations, said that 84 percent of the messages it had seen since Jan. 1 were spam, up from 80 percent in mid-December.
But Andrew Lochart, the company's director of product marketing, said the increase was mainly a result of a slowdown in legitimate message traffic over the holiday period. Postini's analysis shows that few messages carry the required postal address and other information, and those that do appear to be from mainstream marketers.
"The volume of e-mail the legit senders send is dwarfed by the junk coming from the bottom feeders who hide their identity and who, for the most part, know how to make themselves untraceable," Mr. Lochart said. Brightmail, another filtering company that mainly serves large Internet providers, found that 61.2 percent of the messages it processed were spam in the first four days of this month, compared with 58 percent in December.
For mainstream marketers, the most difficult part of the new law is complying with the requirements for removal from e-mail lists. Marketers often hire dozens of e-mail companies, each with its own mailing list, to send out solicitations. Until now, those mailers were responsible for taking people off their lists if they asked to be removed.
Now the company whose product is advertised must keep its own do-not-e-mail list assembled from requests sent to each of the companies that it uses to send e-mail offers. In theory, an e-mail user who asks to be taken off a list for a particular sales offer should never receive another solicitation from that marketer again, regardless of which mailing-list company sends the offer.
"This caught many advertisers and list vendors off guard as they only had two weeks to prepare for the logistics of doing this," said Michael Mayor, the chief executive of NetCreations, a New York e-mail marketing company.
As is often the case, in fact, new regulations make for new business for vendors of all sorts. Ms. Kouzamanoff of Inter7 said that many of her clients were shifting away from using a small number of high-volume servers to send e-mail to avoid having mass mailings detected by spam filters. "People are sending slower, from more different places, and that means they have to buy more servers," she said.
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