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Harnessing Collective Annoyance to Fight Spam

Internet: As the torrent of unsolicited e-mails rises, some see growing public anger as a way to stem it. One new tool even lets users vote mail off the system.


SAN FRANCISCO — Just when a new area of hyper-growth on the beleaguered Internet finally is taking off, some people are spending millions of dollars and banding together to snuff it out.

It seems some folks just don't want to have unlimited income, bigger breasts and all-you-can-eat Viagra.

So far, they are losing the fight: The number of unsolicited e-mails known as spam is increasing faster than ever, by as much as 500% in the last year. And a business with 500 employees can expect to waste $40,000 in workers' time annually, research firms say.

But the anti-spam forces are spending more and more on the problem, and some innovative ideas are harnessing collective annoyance in a way that could change the balance.

One of the new collaborative proselytizers, San Francisco start-up Cloudmark Inc., today is releasing a free tool for users of Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook e-mail system that allows them to vote on what's spam. If enough users designate a piece of mail as spam, Cloudmark will stop it from reaching everyone's primary mailbox, instead sending it to a spam folder.

"It sounds promising," said John Patrick, a former IBM Corp. vice president who chairs the Global Internet Project, which is pushing for standards that would work on all e-mail systems.

Other grass-roots efforts have proved difficult to use, Patrick said. But Cloudmark Chief Executive Karl Jacob said his company's SpamNet system requires only the same single mouse click that deleting the offending e-mail would. Cloudmark plans to earn money later by selling a version of SpamNet to companies.

The biggest anti-spam vendor is San Francisco's Brightmail Inc., a venture-funded operation that sells to six of the top 10 Internet service providers and to companies such as Cypress Semiconductor Corp. of San Jose. Brightmail has about 45% of the $88-million market but doesn't offer a consumer version.

Brightmail uses dummy e-mail addresses to attract spam, then writes rules to block those e-mails from reaching real people. Dennis Bell, Cypress' director of technical operations, said Brightmail has paid for itself by wiping out 90% of Cypress employees' spam without blocking any legitimate e-mails. But Bell and others said that if they found something better, they would use it.

Because the spam-hurlers are getting more clever, Cloudmark founder and Chief Technology Officer Jordan Ritter says that mass public participation will be able to keep pace better than Brightmail's human rule writers.

Combined with a system for evaluating how similar a definite piece of spam is to a suspected piece of spam, Cloudmark should be able to eliminate 99% of the bad stuff, said Ritter, a founding developer of Napster Inc.

The system makes sense to such analysts as Michael Osterman, whose Osterman Research has been tracking spam.

"The approach is a very sound one," Osterman said. "The only risk is, will they get enough users?"

Given the growing anger over spam, the firm at least has a receptive audience to work with. Its system takes a lot less effort than the approach endorsed by some independent spam militants, who have gone so far as to call a spammer's toll-free phone number and leave the phone number of another spammer for the first to call back, wasting the time and money of two culprits with a single call.

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