‘E-Mail As We Know It Is Dying’
By Barry Shein
June 16, 2003
As someone who manages an Internet service provider, my perspective on spam is a little different than many you’ve seen in the press. For example, in the Technology Review article, Evan Schwartz writes about dictionary attacks, wherein a spammer guesses mailbox names by sending to john1, john2, john3, and so on. Probably 99 percent or more of those millions of guesses are going to just bounce back with a user unknown error.Unfortunately, the return addresses to send those errors to are invariably phony so the mail cannot be returned. Who do you think looks up all those address guesses? Who tries to return those millions of bounces for days? Servers such as ours. Our systems get choked with this non-stop effluvia.
It is this sort of problem which makes spam like the proverbial iceberg. The junk in your mailbox is just the tip of that iceberg. Lying beneath the surface are the 99,999 guesses the spammer made to discover your mailbox. As Paul Judge points out in the article, this is likely to grow worse as spammers work harder to get around anti-spam schemes.
From this perspective I’ll make two observations about the spam situation:
The first is that fraud and criminality are inherent in spam. Spam is organized crime come to the Internet. To you, it may be a come-on for a mortgage or body enhancement product you don’t want. To me, it’s 200 or more computers simultaneously spewing that same message at our servers. The spammer doesn’t own 200 computers. These computers are often infected with viruses turning them into unwitting spam slaves. This, and exploiting misconfigured server software, is not the behavior of a new breed of businessperson just trying to make a living on the cyber-frontier. These are the machinations of sociopathic criminals.
My second observation is that, from this front-row seat on the problem, it looks like e-mail as we know it is dying. Ultimately it won’t just be these criminals who killed e-mail. They’re just the first wave. Next will come the real, professional, marketeers. The ones with the millions, and in some cases billions, of dollars in their ad budgets.
Even so-called “opt-in mail,” where the recipient explicitly asks for the material, is doomed.
Consider the analogy of the U.S. Postal Service. Will they deliver a magazine or catalog to you for free just because you subscribed or had a bona-fide business relationship with the sender? Then how well is this going to work with e-mail? Your web of e-relationships grows as time goes on, it doesn’t diminish. Marketeers never forget a contact, particularly when sending out ads is virtually free. The volume is only going to increase. Add in multi-media mail and the future doesn’t look good for this free-for-all.
The current model of e-mail is doomed. It was a nice experiment but it didn’t work out. What we need to do now is move to a sender-pays model, perhaps with some allowance for bona-fide personal usage.