Putting aside their competitive differences, Yahoo!, America Online, Microsoft and Earthlink this week unveiled technical recommendations that focus on verifying the identity of an e-mail sender. The top Internet service providers announced the recommendations separately through statements on their Web sites.
Commission rejected the concept of a "do not e-mail" registry akin to the Do Not Call Registry blocking telemarketing calls. Instead, the FTC told Congress that it favors spam controls based on so-called authenticating technologies that can verify the source of an e-mail message.
The solutions are the result of a year of collaboration. In April 2003, the four ISPs formed the Anti-Spam Technical Alliance to develop technology to combat spam, or unsolicited bulk e-mail, and eventually settle on a common standard.
"We are working slowly but surely to move closer to an e-mail authentication process that the rest of the industry can adopt," said Nicholas Graham, a spokesman at AOL.
The technical solutions are currently being tested and shared by the ISPs. One solution checks that the Internet Protocol (IP) address from which the e-mail is sent matches with the "From" line. This verifies that the email is coming from the place the sender says it is. There are two products that employ this solution, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Sender ID.
The other solution, Domain Keys, developed by Yahoo!, uses a pair of cryptographically scrambled "keys" to match an e-mail's public domain name with the e-mail's private signature, a Yahoo! representative said.
Still some jostling
The ISPs still seem to be jostling for position. At press time, Microsoft said it had combined its product, Sender ID, with SPF, which was authored by technologist Meng Wong. The new product, Caller ID, had been sent to an independent group of technologists and engineers that recommends standards for the Internet.
Meanwhile, AOL continues to test SPF and plans to roll it out to the thousands of legitimate bulk e-mail senders who have proven themselves worthy to AOL.
Despite behind-the-scenes maneuvering, e-mail senders are pleased. Said Markus Mullarkey, vice president of outbound media at CNET Networks, which sends out about 100 million opt-in e-mails a month: "It's impressive [and] akin to the airlines working together to make sure all the flights leave and arrive on time."
Direct marketers are skeptical
Others are dubious. "The devil may yet be in the details," said H. Robert Wientzen, president-CEO of the Direct Marketing Association.
Mr. Wientzen believes enforcement is the most effective means of stopping spam (along with legislation, technology and industry self-regulation). The DMA has sunk half a million dollars into locating and investigating spammers and turning them into the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fifty cases have been prepared so far, Mr. Wientzen said.