October 28, 2003 11:00 pm
"Technology created the problem and technology is going to solve it." – Jeff CrewsEastern Oregon Net Inc. ().
"Technology created the problem and technology is going to solve it." – Jeff CrewsEastern Oregon Net Inc. ().

By Bill Rautenstauch

Observer Staff Writer

Can Sens. Ron Wyden and Conrad Burns save the world from spam?

Probably not, say representatives of two area Internet service providers.

Wyden, D-Ore., and Burns, R-Mont., are sponsors of a bill aimed at combating the nation's junk e-mail problem, which is said to be costing businesses and consumers $10 billion a year.

Primary targets of the bill, which recently passed the U.S. Senate by a

97-0 vote, are financial scammers, and peddlers of body enhancement products and pornography.

The bill would criminalize many of the techniques those spammers use to get their messages across while hiding their identities and the location of their computers.

But opponents are urging caution. They say provisions in the bill threaten free speech. They point out that material that is objectionable to one person may not be objectionable to another.

And, potentially, the government is granting itself the power to decide what is legitimate marketing and what is not.

Tim Sharrard, La Grande office manager for Oregon Trail Internet, said he doesn't think the answer to the junk e-mail problem lies in government regulation.

First and foremost, it's a free speech issue, Sharrard said.

"Is the government or my Internet service provider business going to tell you (as a customer) what is spam and what isn't?" he said.

Still, Internet service providers have an obligation to fight spam. Spam-filtering software has reduced the number of offensive messages getting through, Sharrard said.

He said OTI has a number of filter options customers choose from when they sign up for service.

Virus protection is automatic. A second level of protection filters out viruses and spam, and a third one viruses, spam and adult content.

"You never can get it all. We filter out probably 98 percent of viruses and about 60 percent of spam. The adult content is easiest to take care of. It's usually pretty straightforward," he said.

Sharrard said the filters his company uses don't offer a perfect solution; definitions of spam and adult content are built into the software and may not always agree with a consumer's own definitions.

In addition to the free speech issue, the government is letting itself in for big problems in the area of enforcement, Sharrard said.

"It's not just a national problem. A lot of it comes from out of the country," he commented.

He noted that Internet service providers and spammers are perpetually locked in battle, trying to checkmate each other with the latest technological weapons.

"Say you find a way to take out 200,000 spam messages. That's great, but then the spammers send a million. They figure it out. They've got the time to sit there and beat it," Sharrard said.

Sharrard said he thinks that in the end, the spam problem will be solved at the individual level.

"The answer is for a user to have a filter on his own desktop, and tune it to his own solution," he said.

Jeff Crews of La Grande-based Eastern Oregon Net Inc., agrees that government legislation isn't the answer to the spam problem.

"It will help some, but the net is international. Enforcement will always be a struggle. You can make laws here in the United States, but spammers will just take their operations off shore," Crews said.

Like Oregon Trail Internet, EONI uses filters that score

e-mail and block out the ones that don't meet standards. The filters are highly effective against viruses, and fairly effective against spam.

But, again, it's not considered a perfect solution. Like Sharrard, Crews thinks desktop tools — those already in use and those yet to be invented — offer the best hope in the fight against spam.

He said a filter called Bayesian that allows individual users to decide what's spam and what's not, is among those showing great promise.

There also is an array of human authentication software coming available that forces senders to identify themselves through a password challenge, Crews said.

"Technology created the problem, and technology is going to solve it," he said.