The next weapon in the war against junk e-mail could be built into the core of the Internet's inner workings if a group of anti-spam vigilantes gets its way.
The weapon in question is called "dot-mail," a proposed new Internet domain like dot-com or dot-org. If approved by the Internet's addressing authority, direct mailers and other companies could use it to send their e-mails straight to users' in-boxes without fear that they will be quarantined or discarded by software filters that confuse those e-mails with spam.
"What we're trying to create is a zone on the Internet where mail flows -- where the airlines and Amazons and eBays can send mail and it will arrive cleanly," said John Reid, a spokesman for Spamhaus, a Britain-based nonprofit company trying to reduce the amount of spam online.
A dot-mail domain is a kind of "white list," techie parlance for a compilation of Internet addresses that ISPs and system administrators know is trustworthy. Companies with dot-mail addresses would have to ask e-mail recipients not only for their permission to send them material, but also a confirmation generated by the recipient.
It is the opposite approach of "blacklists," which ISPs use to automatically reject e-mails that come from Internet domains known for generating spam. Spamhaus maintains one of the most widely used blacklists.
Blacklists are popular but have the unintended effect of trapping legitimate e-mail messages. Not only that, people whose domains wind up on blacklists often have a hard time getting off them again because some blacklist operators keep their contact information hidden. Others often are reticent to remove names from their lists.
But dot-mail is facing several hurdles that stand between it and reality. One of the steepest is price. Compared to the $6 wholesale rate for a dot-com address, the $2,000 wholesale asking price is a steep one. Reid said the hefty annual fee would pay for Spamhaus to review all dot-mail applicants to insure that they are not spammers.
"It's not going to be spam if it's coming from dot-mail, so the problems drop away very quickly," he said.
More uncertain is whether the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- the nonprofit group that supervises the online addressing system -- will approve dot-mail's creation. ICANN is considering the dot-mail bid, along with proposals to create domains such as dot-tel, dot-travel and dot-xxx.
Spokesman Kieran Baker said ICANN will approve at least some of the domains later this year, but declined to comment on the status of individual bids.
Under the Spamhaus proposal, dot-mail applicants only can buy addresses that correspond to Web sites that they already own. For instance, the owners of washingtonpost.com would be eligible to buy washingtonpost.com.mail.
Registrants would not be allowed to put Web sites at the dot-mail addresses nor would they be able to send mail directly from them. Rather, the domain would exist as a cross-referencing device for e-mail administrators looking to verify the validity of messages. Messages coming from a dot-mail customer could be marked and checked against Spamhaus's database.
White Lists Appealing
Ray Everett-Church, counsel for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), said he supports the idea. "I think that people are certainly warming to it," he said.
White lists are appealing because they identify messages coming from "legitimate" e-mail marketers, which keeps system administrators from running those messages through spam filters, said Direct Marketing Association spokesman Louis Mastria. Those filters snare 15 percent to 27 percent of messages sent by DMA members.
Mastria said, however, that DMA members would be leery of trusting Spamhaus to vouch for their online reputations because the Spamhaus blacklist has thwarted many of their legitimate communications.
He said he worries that a dot-mail domain might result in the same problem. "There doesn't seem to be any process built in for how to get yourself one of these dot-mail names if they don't choose to give it to you."
The dot-mail plan could scare away some of the people who need it most, said Steve Atkins, head of Word to the Wise, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based consulting business that helps customers prevent their mass e-mailings from being trapped in spam filters by cleaning up their mailing practices.
"The people who can meet those standards are the ones who aren't having that much trouble delivering the mail anyway. Squeaky clean e-mailers who send lots of mail don't see lots of problems with blacklisting," Atkins said.
If dot-mail is approved, it could face more than a doubtful reception from direct marketers. Many ISPs and e-mail providers like America Online, Yahoo and Earthlink run their own white lists, and there are a number of companies pitching their own products.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Habeas Inc. uses digital watermarking technology -- accepted by Time Warner's Road Runner high-speed Internet service and SBC Communications among others -- that it licenses to companies such as E-Loan, BizRateand Harris Interactive.
Eric Allman, the chief technology officer for Sendmail Inc., and the author of one of the world's most widely used e-mail programs, said dot-mail could have a fighting chance if it quickly built a broad user base to make it worthwhile for system administrators to greenlight mail coming from the domain, Allman said.
"Getting over that initial hump is the hard part," Allman said.
Al DiGuido, chief executive of bulk e-mailer Bigfoot Interactive (whose clients include washingtonpost.com), said dot-mail would work only if big ISPs and other well established companies accept it.
"This idea is stillborn until that happens," he said. "Unless Yahoo, MSN or AOL gets behind them, it's going to be a real uphill battle."
EBay Cool to the Idea
EBay, one of the companies Spamhaus targets as a potential dot-mail customer, is cool to the idea.
"While we're not shutting the door to it, it's not our focus," said spokesman Hani Durzy. "I think it's still an open question about how easy it would be to abuse this."
Earthlink, the nation's second-largest ISP, would require more time to study the proposal before buying into it, said Director of Product Development Stephen Currie.
The nation's biggest provider, AOL, handles most of its spam defense in-house and would be uncomfortable about trusting a third party, said spokesman Nicholas Graham.
"That's not something we have done, that's not something we currently do, and I think we'd be very, very apprehensive about doing it in the future," Graham said.
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