E-Commentary -- Gimme E-Shelter

Dec. 21, 2004
The Internet is losing the battle against e-mail bombing.

Call me shrapmailed. Shrapmail is so ubiquitous, so insidious, that not even Bill Gates -- the richest man in the world, founder and top dog at Microsoft Corp., and considered by some as one of the most technologically savvy people in the world -- can stop it. Millions of innocent executives, managers, salespeople, distributors, plant workers and consumers are being attacked daily, targeted by an aerial bombardment of useless and often offensive e-junk. This stuff comprises up to 60% of all incoming corporate e-mail, according to anti-spam software vendor CipherTrust Inc. And, please, let's forget the word "spam." Spam, last time I looked, was food. And this isn't about food, it's about a war. The potential losers are the Internet and unencumbered e-commerce. Some e-shrapnel comes in the form of actual messages. Most of the junk attack has to do with sex, money or drugs. Some typical topics of e-mail bombs hurled at me today were: "sex devices"; "Re due balance"; "Fastest Prescription Drugs Delivery Nationwide"; "No gimmicks here, just great rates." Even more annoying is the "pop-up" message, which can come at any instant, interrupting whatever the user is doing at the time and, basically, freeze the screen. No telling how many millions of curses have been elicited by that awful "ding" sound a computer makes each time one of these high-tech land mines explodes on the screen. A sampling of pop-ups: "Message from Weed smoking guy. Get yourself some weed. 100 percent legal." "Message from cheap cigarettes to you. Stop Paying $2.50 to $7.50 per pack. 80 percent off. Deliverycigs.com." "$25 in free chips to play poker. World's largest poker room. 30,000 live players." Microsoft's Gates believes the online bombing campaign can be stopped by a postage stamp. The idea, he believes, is that the shrapmailers will go away once they are forced to pay a few pennies per message. He might be right, but don't bet the factory. Time and again, the shrapmailers have circumvented efforts to stop them. Companies install e-mail filters, a kind of online radar with antiaircraft guns, and the stuff still gets through. Try to stop it, and real business messages get stopped, too. Earlier this week, a consultant I e-mailed and called for a story interview told me by telephone that he never got my e-mail -- his filter had automatically assumed that since it didn't recognize me, I had to be one of those Weed Smoking Guys or Poker Rooms. ReturnPath Inc., which assists e-marketers, reports that one-fifth of all legitimate marketing messages were blocked in a recent quarter. The bombardment is eroding the Internet's usefulness. As office workers and consumers set about the task of wading through scores of useless e-mail messages each day, the so-called productivity gains of the Web are sapped. It's like the parasitic lamprey fish that attaches itself to a lake trout, draining the larger creature of its energy until it finally succumbs and dies. Oh, sure, Microsoft, AOL and Earthlink are among a small band of companies that are seeking ways to stop the attack. But so far not even legislation and technological fixes have worked. The U.S. CAN-SPAM law went into effect Jan. 1, allowing manufacturers and marketers who hire spammers to be prosecuted, although no one's been hauled into court yet. Meanwhile, like the lake trout, the Internet can't hold out forever. Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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