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The crippling spam problem continues to pose huge challenges for legitimate e-mail marketers. In addition to spam, deliverability roadblocks such as filters and blacklists, and fraudulent schemes like phishing and spoofing, which cause users to be reticent about responding to messages, have undercut e-mail’s power as a marketing channel.

Despite ongoing efforts to combat spam from both legislative and technology standpoints, 80% to 90% of all e-mail messages are spam, according to Ferris Research, which estimated the problem will cost businesses about $50 billion worldwide in 2005.

In response, legislators and federal governmental entities continue to tinker. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission is currently proposing an addendum to the 18-month-old federal CAN-SPAM Act that would have marketers comply with its opt-out requirements within three days instead of 10.

But that approach drew an objection from American Business Media, which represents more than 200 b-to-b information providers. ABM filed comments last month in response to the FTC’s proposal, arguing that shrinking the opt-out request from 10 days to three could present a hardship to its members, particularly smaller media companies that might not be able to afford the necessary technology investment required to process opt-outs that quickly.

"Because e-mail is an integral aspect of the communication and advertising practices of its members, American Business Media encourages and supports the commission’s efforts to develop rules aimed at eliminating unsolicited `spam’ without unduly burdening businesses making legitimate use of e-mail communications," ABM said.

E-mail provider ExactTarget agreed. It also appealed to the agency, citing serious concerns. "Mandating a three-day opt-out processing period will put many well-intentioned companies unnecessarily out of compliance with the [CAN-SPAM] Act and impede the strategic use of e-mail," said Chip House, VP-privacy and deliverability at ExactTarget. That’s because a national organization, for example, with multiple subsidiaries or divisions that may be using third parties for list services may potentially need to go through complicated gyrations to meet the three-day requirement. "Changing it from 10 days to three won’t harm spammers, but it may potentially harm legitimate businesses that may not have their technology up to snuff," he said. "There’s no evidence that it needs to be changed."

Authentication’s promise

While interest groups wrangle over rules, however, e-mail executives are banking that a technical solution-specifically, authentication, accreditation and reputation systems-will be an effective means to solve the spam problem once and for all.

Microsoft Corp. in June implemented Sender ID in MSN Hotmail, which now requires marketers to publish Sender Policy Framework (SPF) records. Hotmail supports more than 200 million users globally. Given that reach, the process may accelerate rapidly.

"The proposed new spam filtering rule at MSN means that certain messages are more likely to be filtered as spam, and certain other messages are less likely to be filtered," said Richi Jennings, an analyst at Ferris Research, in his Weblog. "This will encourage domain owners to publish SPF records. Microsoft is using its position as a very large e-mail provider for good."

Others agreed. "I think their goal is to provide the carrot for the industry to adopt authentication," ExactTarget’s House said. "It’s a step forward for the industry, and I think Microsoft’s action will pull many if not most senders towards authentication." House said authentication is a "good first step" in a process that will also include accreditation and reputation. "Legitimate marketers will have a high reputation score and get their mail delivered," he said.

Microsoft’s move may also change what now seems like marketers’ indifference. "I don’t think marketers are very aware of authentication," said Lance Tokuda, CTO and VP-engineering at Iconix, which markets a technology plug-in that is scheduled to be launched in September. The product, in beta, works alongside Sender ID and Yahoo!’s DomainKeys protocol to prove the authenticity of an e-mail marketing message and uses the brand’s logo in the message’s "From" line.

Educating the marketing community about authentication is critical, experts said. Last month, the Direct Marketing Association and e-mail provider Bigfoot Interactive announced they had published a white paper on authentication, accreditation and reputation (AAR), calling it "practical, plain English advice."

The DMA recently has been encouraging its members to keep up with emerging standards for e-mail authentication.

"In today’s world, communication between marketers and IT needs to be solid," said Jordan Cohen, director of ISP and government relations at Bigfoot Interactive.

Accreditation and reputation

Legitimate marketers find that authentication is often complemented by accreditation and reputation solutions, which can improve e-mail reliability and deliverability.

The white paper covers AAR development, implementation and navigation and offers practical advice for marketers trying to increase revenue by e-mail marketing and the short-term AAR process.

The leading solutions section gives marketers a background on Sender ID, which, it says, is "like a Caller ID for e-mail." Development and implementation discusses the reasons behind AAR solutions. Practical advice and navigation techniques include a list of "keys to success" and a checklist for success in deliverability.

"Marketers don’t need to know all the technical specs, just the concrete benefits," Cohen said, adding that the document marks a "move from discussion to widespread marketplace implementation" of AAR.

It also serves as a precursor to the E-mail Authentication Summit 2005 being held this week in New York. Described as a cross-industry collaborative event to help companies combat spam, phishing and other e-mail fraud, the summit is being underwritten by more than three dozen companies, including e-mail marketers, ISPs and marketing industry associations, including Microsoft.

"The Authentication Summit is indicative of the type of cooperation we need to see in the industry," ExactTarget’s House said. "You’re seeing more consolidation and cooperation around these standards in the industry because it is in everyone’s best interest to work together."

"We and others in the industry recognize that technology alone cannot contain the spam problem," said Craig Spiezle, a director in the Microsoft Technology Care and Safety Group, in an interview on the Microsoft site.

"Spammers and scammers are continually innovating and getting more sophisticated in their methods of escaping detection. It is a game of cat and mouse," Spiezle is quoted as saying. "That’s why we must continue to move forward in all of these areas to not only stay ahead of the curve but eventually turn their incentives upside down and make it no longer profitable to send spam or scams."

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