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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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"We have been fooled once by the likes of MS," one participant wrote. "Let's not let it happen again."

"For all I preach about not blaming Microsoft here's an instance where I'll gladly say it," another person said. "The words 'BLAME MICROSOFT' creep across my crystal ball."

Microsoft said it had the best intentions when it patented the technology: It wanted to make sure no one else would do so and then abuse it.

"We were open and honest from the very beginning. Anyone can grab and use Sender ID and Microsoft will never come back and charge for it," said Ryan Hamlin, general manager for the technology care and safety group at Microsoft.

But their efforts were too late. Trust had been lost. The IETF's e-mail group, unable to agree on whether to proceed with the Microsoft proposal, was disbanded.

Wong was pummeled with criticism from colleagues. He said he knew nothing about the patent applications until a friend told him, and that after analyzing them he thinks the company's public promises of a royalty-free license should be enough to assuage any concerns.

"I don't think that at any point I went over to the dark side," he said.

"We've done a lot of soul-searching and looking back at the process and we believe we did exactly the right thing," Hamlin said. "Unfortunately, there were differing options there and it definitely stalled some of the momentum."

Allman said he thinks Microsoft was not given a fair chance and that people overreacted because of the company's past practices.

He and representatives of other companies such as Bigfoot Interactive that use Sender ID said they believe Microsoft has lived up to its pledges so far.

"I don't think the world realizes that Microsoft realizes that this is different from what they usually do," Allman said.

With efforts to create a single standard stalled, several companies this year began rolling out their own e-mail authentication systems.

This month, Microsoft and Yahoo, which recently announced it would merge its program with Cisco's, separately began offering consumers a note on e-mails informing them whether the sender has been authenticated.

Some e-mail monitoring companies already report a leveling off of spam. But having multiple e-mail authentication programs is causing confusion.

While Microsoft tries to flag e-mails that are potentially "bad," Yahoo does the opposite, labeling e-mails that are "good." And while Microsoft and Yahoo say their systems are "complementary," neither has plans to implement each other's system, although they say they have not ruled out the possibility.

There are also other, unresolved questions -- for example, about whether it is fair to just delete an e-mail from an unauthenticated address before the intended recipient sees it, and about how to keep people such as political dissidents anonymous in the new system.

Meanwhile, Wong has said his role as an evangelist for e-mail authentication has given him "a new appreciation for politicians and politics."

"At some point I had to stop being a programmer and turn into a politician," Wong said. "I can only imagine what it's like for politicians to try to do something that not everybody wants to do."

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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