Alliance Raised Hope in Fight Against Spam

Eric Allman designed Sendmail to ease the transmission of messages.
Eric Allman designed Sendmail to ease the transmission of messages. (By Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 3, 2005

In 2003, Meng Wong and a friend wrote a program with the bold goal of helping to save e-mail. Wong, a 29-year-old tech entrepreneur, worried that the worldwide message system was in danger of being overwhelmed by spam, phishing and other online scourges. He released the software on the Internet for everyone to use free.

It drew the notice of software company Microsoft Corp., which had been working on a similar product of its own. Nearly a dozen other companies, including Yahoo Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc., also were trying to come up with a way to make the e-mail system more reliable, but none could agree on a common approach.

So when Wong got a message from Microsoft in May 2004 about a possible partnership, he jumped at the opportunity. But so far efforts to get everyone else on board have failed, and now problems with the e-mail system are worse than ever. Spam grew from 50 percent of all worldwide e-mail in July 2003 to about 69 percent today.

"Stopping spam is something everybody wants to do and it has been this hard," Wong said.

The fact that the industry has failed to adopt a solution that all agree is necessary is a lesson in the complicated nature of who controls the online world. Big companies have clashed over who should take responsibility for a resource, e-mail, that no one owns. Individuals have accused the companies of being too concerned about their bottom lines to be trusted.

Like the Internet itself, e-mail is an innovation born out of idealism that has found itself stymied by abuse.

When the e-mail system we use today was written in 1977, around the time when Wong was born, a lone researcher at the University of California at Berkeley had control over how it evolved.

Eric Allman designed the program, Sendmail, to make it easier for messages to be sent to and from any computer.

The goal was convenience, not security. While Allman's invention made it easy for the University of California academics to reach each other, it also made it easy for those with less admirable motives to do the same.

No one had a chance to change the system before it tumbled out into the rest of the world. Now, with billions of e-mails flashing around the globe every hour, the problems threaten to overwhelm the system.

This is why mighty Microsoft was eager to meet last year with Wong, a little-known computer engineer from the University of Pennsylvania who had started an e-mail company, Pobox.com.

Wong and Microsoft had separately concluded that the best way to fight spam in the short term was to make it harder for people to "spoof," or fake, their identities on e-mail. E-mail authentication works by checking with the host company, government or Internet service provider whether the sender is legitimate and registered -- providing a virtual return address.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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