1) Back to the 90s
If you had known back in the early 90s that spam was going to be the problem it is now, what steps would you have taken then to protect yourself and others from it?
For instance, what changes would you have advocated in the mail protocols and what standard procedures would you have told other ISPs to use to prevent spammers from getting a foothold in the first place?
When The World began selling the first commercial dial-up internet accounts in 1989 one question we were frequently asked by the privileged few who had internet access was: How are you going to control them? To be honest, we never had a good answer other than developing what everyone thought was a pretty good AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) and promising to enforce it as best we could.
But even as the net developed, in the early-mid 90s, there were similar problems with system cracking and break-ins. Back then there were more open holes to just walk right through, get a privileged shell, or just cause mayhem. To a great extent spam can be viewed as a form of system compromise and similar to malicious cracking in many ways.
One of my pleas back then to other ISPs was to make some sincere effort to know to whom you were giving accounts. Many of the ISPs with big funding and marketing departments to match would just give out new accounts to anyone with a drink coaster and worry about it later, oftentimes much later only when the bill wasn't paid.
I think practices like these gave rise to the sense of anarchy and lawlessness on the net that came from the easy abuse of anonymity which persists today. At The World we were careful about not enabling new accounts until we were pretty sure we had valid information. Many ISPs did not do this and tracing problems back to an account on their service would lead to a dead end; the info they had on the account would turn out to be obviously fraudulent.
Also, and this isn't a regret but more of an observation, some early internet advocates wanted only end-to-end services which basically meant that every single computer on the net should be a mostly autonomous client and server. Dial-up made this impractical; you couldn't really run a web site or even a decent mail server over a part-time connection. But I think some of that ambivalence over goals contributed to inaction on issues which might have helped with problems we see today.
2) Acting Locally, Effecting Globally
Many posts talk about proposed changes to society, government, and technology to lessen the spam problem. However, an ISP has more insight into the problem than many others, and I thought I'd ask a question to tap that insight:
Given today's society, technology and infrastructure, what can an individual do that would be effective in reducing not only the personal strain of spam, but also lessen an ISP's burden.
What kind of strategies have you seen work. For instance, in particularly bad instances I'm prone to send an e-mail to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com, but usually never even get a response. Is there a better thing to do? Are there things that are absolutely the wrong thing to do (such as replying to a spam)?
In short, what would you like to see users do in response to spam today?
Pressure your legislators to enforce the laws already on the books! Hijacking others' systems, identity falsification, and fraud are already illegal. These aren't legitimate business people who send all this bulk mail, they're crooks.
Even if a spammer can sneak around the laws making it clear that the activity is illegal, this prevents a spammer from getting investors, incorporating, taking out bank loans, obtaining legal indemnification against liability, buying business insurance, registering with their state or owning intellectual property (e.g., trademarks), etc.
Something else everyone can do is install spam filters. And help others install spam filters. Ultimately, I believe it's an arms race between the filters and the spammers so other forces need to be put into play.
But my reasoning is that utilizing filters now will make the internet experience more pleasant and productive for many which is a good thing. Their wide-spread use will also serve as a wake-up call to those companies who are deluding themselves into thinking they're "white-hat" spammers so ought to be exempt. The filters throw their stuff away also.
The so-called legitimate advertisers need to get to the table with the ISPs and figure this thing out and stop thinking the status quo serves them.
At this point my thinking is that there isn't much difference, from the point of view of an ISP, between companies whose spam you don't hate and those whose spam you do hate.
When it's paper mail you have to put a stamp on a letter whether the intended recipient asked for the mail piece or not. I think we need to move in the same direction on the net with all bulk e-mailers. They need to start paying for the infrastructure they're exploiting.
The current situation is that people tend to define "spam" as e-mail which promotes products which they don't want others to think they want. We need to get beyond that because you're paying for any e-mail you receive, even if only indirectly.
3) why not whitelist?
Why hasn't any large ISP or enterprise seriously considered whitelisting mail? The traditional blacklist idea -- when I see spammers I'll no longer accept their mail -- is so easily overcome that many spammers don't even wait one generation to change addresses. Instead, bounce all mail you don't recognize, with a note to the sender on how to inform the system that you are a real user. Nearly all spammers loose their incoming account immedately, so this seems the natural choice. There's some more detail on this method at the TMDA project.
The easy answer is that the target moves too fast. How could we begin to keep up a whitelist at the ISP level on behalf of thousands or even millions of customers?
And how exactly do you propose to "inform the system that you are a real user"? Right there is the crux of the matter. What you're suggesting is one of those techniques which works pretty well for individuals but is unmanageable at the ISP level.
Something from the TMDA site I do agree with is:
We just have slightly different approaches to making spam prohibitively expensive. Let a thousand flowers bloom!Spam will not cease until it becomes prohibitively expensive for spammers to operate.
4) Is there a reasonable solution?
Given that junk mail in the regular mail is more acceptable (and I will mention that my wife (specially) does like to know when there's a sale on), and given that e-mail is the next big thing, what do you see as an acceptable solution/accord to spam?
I certainly am tired of deleting the penis enlargement and Nigerian bank deposit e-mails, but where is the balance and how do we attain it, if ever?
I believe the only approach which will work is a "sender pays" model for bulk e-mail advertising. Such a model corrects the current situation on several levels:
a) Sender pays can provide an economy to enforce its own rules.
Most proposals I've seen to deal with spam are workable on paper but fail in this regard. If, when considering yet another spam proposal, you ask yourself who will pay for this or that solution, how will it be enforced (e.g., if it requires lawsuits who will pay the lawyers?) generally no answer comes to mind.
However, if we create a (bulk) sender pays model through some sort of trade association then that organization would have a revenue stream which can be tapped to enforce its revenue model, and a monied interest in defending that revenue model.
b) Sender pays creates a conduit of control between the sender and the ISPs.
Right now spammers can use an ISP's facilities to firehose any spam they want, to anyone and everyone they like, at almost zero cost. For example, kids' accounts are flooded with explicit pornographic come-ons. There's no ability to control that sort of thing.
What business allows its facilities to be used to offend its customers?
In a sender pays model one could also refuse to be paid and, hence, refuse the advertising. Spammers are trying to send their spam to the ISP's customers. I think the ISP has both a right and an interest in controlling that so as not to drive customers away. It's not reasonable that an ISP such as myself has no control over what sort of advertising is placed in my customers' mailboxes yet is left responsible for the quality of that experience.
c) Sender pays clarifies the legal situation without a need for new legislation.
Sending, and not paying, would become simple theft of service, wire fraud, etc.
5) ISP Tools
Do ISPs have the tools they need to prevent outgoing SPAM from their own customers? I look at Sendmail and don't see anything that would allow you to throttle mail volume, check outbound messages for SPAM, restrict new customers etc. There isn't even anything built in that would warn you about a customer sending a million messages. It would seem that a few tools like that would be a big help to an ISP too small to develop its own.
I think the best tool is knowing who your customer is and having a clear and effective policy if a customer spams such as clean-up costs which should also include intangibles such as public relations costs.
But you're correct, better tools at that level might help if ISPs were inclined to use them. Many ISPs do use tools such as you describe, others obviously don't care.
One of the few measures that can be taken against spam is the use of blacklists (for instance via DNS). There are a lot of pro's and con's for the use of DNSBL's. How do you feel about these? Should DNSBL's be governmentally regulated? Do you use any DNSBL? Should an ISP enforce certain RBL's (let say, of open relay's) on its customers?
I've always resisted using these blacklist services at the ISP level. There are several reasons why but the most important is control.
If the blacklist suddenly began blocking some site, such as a major university or corporation because it was the source of spam the night before, that might cause a big problem with our customers. Even if it could be worked around it'd be just another out of control detail which might send one into fire-fighting mode suddenly.
Another problem I've had with blacklists is that some have become rogue and gone power-mad, blacklisting addresses for reasons completely unrelated to their stated purpose such as personal politics.
Also, the blacklists I've looked into were volunteer efforts which meant the people involved often felt they could paper over any mistake or oversight or staff unresponsiveness with the excuse that they were unpaid volunteers so what do you expect? You can't have your ISP be dependent on organizations with that attitude. And what if I don't like a blacklist's policies or implementation of their policies? If I'm not paying them I can't vote with my wallet.
I suspect that anyone attempting to run a blacklist in a professional, paid manner would go broke; the service isn't worth what it'd have to charge to stay in business. The legal costs alone can be daunting. With legal issues even if you're right it can be expensive getting there. And customers of any service don't want to pay for your legal bills as the major cost of such a service. So we're back to problems with the economic models.
I don't think government regulation would help with blacklists, per se, except in very general ways (they can run the courts for the lawsuits!) The only analogy I can think of are credit bureaus but most of the government regulation in that area is to protect consumers. I don't think we want the government stepping in to protect spammers!
Finally, yes, just about all ISPs blacklist (block) offending sites. Doing it in-house gives them the control they need. It's not great to have to take this on but it's the only choice right now. Unfortunately it's becoming a major burden, and the results are not altogether predictable.
7) What would be the minimum actual cost?
What would be your actual dollar cost of spam, if you didn't spend much time and effort fighting it?
Let me explain...
I sometimes hear that spam has significant costs in bandwidth and storage but I don't believe it. As far as I can tell, SMTP traffic is at most 2-5% of net traffic. And a quick calculation shows that an ISP's costs for storing its users' spam are fractions of pennies on the dollar. (*)
You've likened spam to a DDoS attack on your mail servers. Stories about being flooded with traffic sound impressive but computers are so fast now, it's hard to put anecdotes into context. So I'm looking for dollar amounts. For a customers paying b dollars per unit time, an ISP like yours has to spend c dollars per unit time on servers that can handle those customers' incoming SMTP traffic. If this is significant, I'm looking for c over a times b :)
Obviously admins to run the servers are an important cost. But for purposes of this question, suppose you wanted to do the bare minimum. Say you set up the SMTP servers to use just a few of the less-intrusive DNSBL lists, like sbl.spamhaus, relays.ordb, or list.dsbl, and then ignored them as much as possible.
The next most common argument I hear is that customers will abandon ISPs that don't fight spam. But every ISP has the same problem, so this is really a competitive advantage issue except for the small percentage of users who are actually driven off the internet by spam.
Then there's outgoing spam but I don't imagine that's too hard to recognize and stop quickly.
Let me know what I'm missing...
(*) Thumbnail calculations of spam storage follow. Let's say J. Average ISP Customer gets 20 spams a day at 10K each, and deletes them only every 30 days. That's an average of 20*10K*15 = 3 MB of storage. If the ISP replaces hard drives every two years on average and its total storage costs are ten times the actual medium costs (for labor, backup, redundancy, downtime), then at today's hard drive prices, that spam storage will cost the ISP 0.003 * 10 / 2 dollars, or about a penny and a half. Over that same year, J. Customer pays the ISP $100+.
Your figures for the percentage of bandwidth which is spam are far too low. Others have put the numbers much higher. NewsFactor cites studies putting the figure somewhere between 17 and 38%. See http://www.ecommercetimes.com/perl/story/19803.html.
As to computers getting faster, that's not a primary issue in my mind. But addressing even that point, how rapidly should I have to amortize and replace my equipment just to accommodate spammers?
And what about the intangibles? They're becoming the major factor in all this. E-mail is the "killer app" on the net. Yet spam is fouling that e-mail experience.
People reading Slashdot might be sufficiently committed to e-mail that they'll wade through all the spam and tweak spam filters even if it takes hours per day and a clothes pin on their collective noses. But what about the many millions of people who aren't so committed to this technology?
As an ISP I can tell you they're giving up on the internet, to them the cost/benefit is just not worthwhile. That's not a good trend.
Another cost is that spam is undermining the standardization of protocols on the net, and thus introducing a pervasive chaos. Every ISP and many other sites are scrambling around implementing mostly different "solutions" to the spam problem. Some of these in-house solutions might be ok, others can be pretty bad.
One result is that e-mail is becoming less reliable as a communications tool. Your mail might get through, it might be kicked out or filtered as spam, you might be able to figure out why and get the message through on a slightly changed subsequent attempt, or maybe not.
Who needs this kind of craziness? How can this situation possibly be productive?
How productive is it to have millions of people installing and customizing spam filters? Or having really bright people writing spam filtering programs? And where is this all going?
In my opinion, if unchecked, I think the current trend is very destructive to the entire idea of a public network.
P.S. I realize in another answer I recommend installing spam filters, but I see that only as a temporary measure.
8) Collateral Damage
One of the greatest problems with spam-prevention techniques has to do with collateral damage. Can you see any solution to spam that either prevents or minimizes the damage to innocent bystanders, such as other users of a spammer's ISP?
Yes, the solution I favor is going to a sender pays model aimed at bulk e-mailers.
Other approaches, in particular technical solutions, are prone to causing collateral damage. Inevitably as the arms race heats up, and spam filters have to take bigger and bigger risks to have any effect, collateral damage will become more common.
And it's already worse than you might imagine. Spam and similar are causing severe operational problems on the net and undermining standards as ISPs and others invent new ways to avoid the spew.
As one concrete example, right this minute there's a network provider who was just assigned most of the 184.108.40.206/8 IP address space. Unfortunately, this was formerly a spam and DOS (denial-of-service) cesspool so many sites out there just block the whole 69.* address space.
So the new owners are making appeals to firewall managers asking them to please remove their blocks in the 69.* space on the NANOG (North American Network Operators Group) list.
But NANOG is not a particularly big or influential mailing list. At best it's only aimed at North America while the blocking exists world-wide. But how do you communicate with so many sites and undo the problem? In a nutshell, you can't. I suspect their customers who get space in 69.* are going to find themselves blocked by many sites for many years to come.
See what a mess spam is causing? It's like asking how much can such a little tiny termite eat? And then the house falls down.
9) Spam Lawsuits
Do you think new laws that allow ISPs and end-users to collect damages from spammers on a per-message basis can be effective tools to reduce spam?
Although it should be part of the picture I think this sort of litigation would be ineffective as a primary attack on the problem.
What we need to do first is stop the insanity!
To do that I say introduce sensible economics into e-mail advertising. You may find network TV commercials annoying, but imagine if just anyone could break into a station's signal at any time and insert advertising! That's what we have right now, and it's crazy.
If we were subjected to a few, well-paid and placed ads it might be annoying to some but others might even find it beneficial like the person in the previous message whose wife likes to know about the good sales. Or we could just pay a premium and not see another ad, analogous to premium cable TV. Or find ways to block them via our personal mail clients, analogous to what people do with PVRs. It'd just be a matter of economics and marketing and taste.
But right now it's complete anarchy, only the introduction of a viable economic model can tame the situation.
Also, I'm not optimistic about any legalistic approach so long as there's no scalable revenue stream associated with e-mail or its abuse.
Currently the general consensus on the net is that we don't even want sales taxes on e-commerce, which might be a reasonable point of view, but then we're going to ask that billions should be spent on courts and enforcement of new spam laws? Where is that money supposed to come from? Cut the fire dept? The schools? Not-growing corn subsidies? Without additional revenue something has to give.
Given a sender pays model money could be earmarked for private enforcement, such as investigation and litigation. And the case could be more realistically made as to the exact economic cost of spam. If an ISP was supposed to get paid for ads going through their system then anyone evading that is simply guilty of good old fashioned theft of service, no new laws needed. And legislators, who presumably would be getting their usual business tax cut of such revenue, could begin to see the logic in returning some tax money to defend these revenue streams.
There would still be challenges to be worked out internationally but it wouldn't be the first time a revenue model had to work on a global scale. Obviously international telephony and postal mail works well enough to combat fraud. But only with some sort of concomitant revenue stream attached to the activity could you possibly begin to tackle the problem, domestically or internationally.
10) Kill 'em all
If you could meet a spammer, what would you say? What would you do? What caliber would you use? Would you want someone to do it for you? Is $10,000 a head too much?
I would tell the spammer in no uncertain terms that spammers' days are numbered, just like junk faxers and other scam artists who exploited a brief window of vulnerability.
Situations like this don't last long.
Of course, then the spammer would laugh in my face because that's what sociopaths like to do when confronted. But, as the expression goes, we'll see who laughs last.
One thing is clear, however, spammers will not listen to reason. So any change in their behavior will have to be the result of force.