The Origins of Spam

Fellow eec blogger Chip House recently blogged some good points on email marketing sustainability in response Michael Specter’s recent article, “Damn Spam” in the New Yorker .

As Chip notes, Specter’s piece is a fascinating piece of historical reporting on the origin of spam. Too bad Specter misses the whole point of how the spam problem is being tackled today—and how, I believe, it will eventually be solved.

It’s really challenging, both from an intellectual as well as corporate resources standpoint—for receivers of all stripes—ISPs, universities, corporations, etc- to keep up with the spammers. Spam evolves. Specter reports, “Indeed, most anti-spam techniques so far have been like pesticides that do nothing other than create a more resistant strain of bugs.”

Return Path responded to the article by correcting Specter’s suggestion that using reputation analysis (i.e., Is this sender good or bad?) is susceptible to gaming by spammers in the same way that content filters (i.e., does this email look or read like spam?) are today. We also blogged about it here.

Our response was written by Return Path CEO Matt Blumberg and GM of Deliverability Solutions George Bilbrey. Since they are a lot smarter than I am, I quote their letter in part:

“In fact, reputation metrics, if used well, are impossible to fake for more than 24 hours. A server that sends email that garners lots of complaints from recipients cannot make those complaints disappear. A server that has a spammy configuration (like open proxies or open relays) can’t fake those technical settings. Spammers can, and do, switch servers and IP addresses, but these “no reputation” IPs are viewed with suspicion by receivers until they accumulate enough data on them to develop a reputation.

Even if they spend time up front establishing a good reputation by using good sending practices, no true spammer can ever get or keep a good reputation—a standard that is increasingly becoming the only path to inbox placement. But, legitimate email marketers—retailers, publishers, non-profits and others—can establish good reputations that make sure that consumers get the email they sign up for and want to receive. Reputation systems offer the best of both worlds—a decrease in unwanted email and a decrease in false positives. For this reason, more and more internet service providers and corporate email administrators are moving to reputation systems to stem the spam tide. While spam may never completely end, the improvement of these systems will surely have many spammers looking for a new line of work.”

Please let me know your thoughts on the article, and what role you believe sender reputation plays in reaching the inbox today—and tomorrow.

—Stephanie Miller