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Why I Hate Spam

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal

by Bill Gates

June 23, 2003

SEATTLE -- Like almost everyone who uses e-mail, I receive a ton of spam every day. Much of it offers to help me get out of debt or get rich quick. It would be funny if it weren't so irritating.

But spam is worse than irritating. It is a drain on business productivity, an increasingly costly waste of time and resources that clogs corporate networks and distracts workers. Among consumers, it spreads scams, pornography and even computer viruses. Worse, spammers prey on less sophisticated e-mail users, including children, threatening their safety and privacy. And as everyone struggles to sift spam from their inboxes, valid messages are sometimes overlooked or deleted, which makes e-mail less useful and reliable as a channel for communication and legitimate e-commerce. In short, spam threatens to undo much of the good that e-mail has achieved.

As part of our drive to create a more trustworthy computing environment, this month, Microsoft filed 15 lawsuits in the U.S. and U.K. against companies and individuals alleged to have sent billions of spam messages in violation of state and federal laws. In addition to filing civil lawsuits and taking other enforcement actions, we are significantly stepping up our efforts to fight spam through technological innovation and cooperation with government and industry leaders. We are developing more effective anti-spam filters and other technologies that build on our research into fields such as machine learning -- the design of systems that learn from data and grow smarter over time. These "smart" systems are vital to the fight against spam because every defensive action causes spammers to change their tactics. Technology, to be effective, must continuously adapt too.

Already, spam filters built into MSN and Hotmail servers block 2.4 billion messages a day before they reach subscribers' inboxes. We have assembled a vast and fast-growing database of spam, which will be used by a forthcoming version of our Outlook e-mail software to block spam more effectively. And a new version of our Exchange e-mail server will include advanced anti-spam features. Our goal is to do everything possible to secure e-mail systems with servers that monitor and control the points of entry.

But a single company can't stem the tide of spam alone. So we are working with other industry leaders such as AOL, Yahoo! and EarthLink on a range of joint initiatives. For example, we are battling spammers who set up numerous e-mail accounts and move from service to service to avoid detection. To put an end to this shell game, we are sharing information so that we can keep tabs on roving spammers and shut them down more effectively. Spammers also go to great lengths to conceal or "spoof" their identities, so we are partnering with other service providers to identify and restrict mail that conceals its source. And we are creating a system to verify sender addresses, much as recipients' addresses are verified today.

A key to eliminating spam is establishing clear guidelines for legitimate commercial e-mail. With industry and consumer groups, we are developing best-practice guidelines to help responsible companies understand how to reach their customers without spamming them. Congress could help by providing a strong incentive for businesses to adopt e-mail best practices. Our proposal is to create a regulatory "safe harbor" status for senders who comply with e-mail guidelines confirmed by an FTC-approved self-regulatory body. Senders who do not comply would have to insert an "ADV:" label -- standing for advertisement -- in the subject line of all unsolicited commercial e-mail. This would enable computer users either to accept ADV-labeled mail or to have it deleted automatically.

As less junk mail reaches recipients -- and violators face stiffer sanctions for illegal activities -- the financial incentives for spammers will decrease, and spamming will lose its appeal.

Then maybe we can all focus on the e-mail that's actually worth reading.

©Dow Jones & Company 2003. All rights reserved.

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