Spamstrung Internet

For Internet users, the first line of defense against junk e-mail, PC-crashing bugs and worms, and other such assaults on this community medium is the delete key.

But as the Net starts to be seen increasingly as a public utility, it's requiring better government policing, more industry solutions and accountability, as well as heightened vigilance among users.

The fight against the billions of spam e-mail, for example, has recently had some success using software filters to slow down the growth of this e-mail kudzu. But last month, two events showed the difficulty of outfoxing spammers.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gave up hope of creating a "do-not-spam" list of e-mail addresses, similar to the successful "do-not-call" lists that have helped block marketing phone calls to homes. The technical hurdles to prevent abuse of such an antispam list were seen as too high.

And an AOL software engineer was arrested for allegedly stealing 92 million e-mail addresses - yes, 92 million - from the company's computers and selling them to a gambling-website spammer. (The list included AOL member ZIP codes, phone numbers, and credit card types - though not credit card numbers.)

Both these setbacks put more of a burden on software companies and Internet service providers to help their customers. While Congress and several states now have laws that make some types of spamming illegal, and the FBI has targeted about 50 of the allegedly worst offenders for investigation, much of the liability and many of the ultimate solutions lie with these companies that are the conduits for spam, as well as for other problems that enter private PCs. The industry, for instance, can move more quickly to reduce online anonymity of spammers. This could mean requiring all e-mail to come from authenticated sources, or Web domains.

The FTC plans an "authentication summit" in the fall, as well as a report looking at possible cash awards for informants who lead to the capture of spammers. It might even require that all commercial e-mail be identified as such on the e-mail subject line.

So far, one of the best antispam moves is vigilance by users in reporting spam to their Internet service providers, who then can set up screens for e-mail boxes.

That community spirit, combined with various industry solutions and rigorous government prosecutions, can reduce Internet abuses before they start to slow the growth of a utility that's rapidly becoming a mainstream necessity.

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