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Head U. 'spam' fighter has his hands full

Annoying ads mushroom into a major problem

Jonzy (it's the only name he will share) is the head "spam" fighter at the University of Utah. And he has his hands full.

Spam is the term that has been attached to the spate of annoying advertising that has flooded computers around the world. In reality, Spam is a processed meat product of the Hormel Co. It got the dubious honor because it typifies "stuff with nothing in it," said Jonzy, who begins an interview by plunking a can of the product down on a conference table. Hormel, obviously, is unhappy that its product has become a pejorative with millions of computer users and would prefer that people call it by its proper term: unsolicited commercial e-mail or UCE.

With 15,000 to 20,000 computers on the U. campus, unsolicited — sometimes patently objectionable — e-mail is "a significant problem. Lots of complaints are sent directly to me, an average 20 to 30 per day." Students, faculty, staff and administrators suddenly faced with, for instance, an explicit illustration touting a pornography site, keep him hopping. Especially staff and faculty, because "they know who to complain to."

Complaints initiate a time-consuming process. "We read through the headers and then contact the people who are registered as the senders. If we don't get a response, we try to identify the 'upstream' originators. We let them know what they are doing is illegal. And we send the information to the pertinent government oversight organization," said Steve Scott, Jonzy's fellow "spam sleuth" in the U. Institutional Security Office. "It takes a bunch of time."

Jonzy has lots of company in the world of higher education. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that colleges all across the country are fed up with spam and share the same frustration that there seems to be little they can do about it. Universities are by nature receivers and purveyors of information, and that makes them more vulnerable, perhaps, than some other institutions.

It isn't just the annoyance factor, Scott said. "The spammers use our resources — network resources and storage capacity — and our time," he said. Recipients of unwanted and unsolicited e-mail advertising bear the cost, not the originators, he noted. With 98 percent of the people on campus using e-mail, the potential is enormous. The Chronicle article estimated that some 25 percent of the salaries of people like Jonzy and Scott is absorbed by the effort to reduce UCEs. Time spent trying to delete spam or add filters to e-mail systems cuts into productive time at every level, beginning with the casual computer user who must wade through spam to get to what matters.

The capacity of e-mail to reach worldwide audiences — that same quality that makes it such an advantage when used positively — makes life easy for those who want to have their message widely disseminated, Jonzy said. "Imagine if you were a company that was starting up. Bulk mail permits and telephone solicitation are costly. Mass e-mail solicitation is cheap and millions see it. It's the numbers. If you reach a million and only a tenth of 1 percent respond, that's a lot of customers."

Such advertisers have become very adept at finding huge mailing lists that give them access to vast numbers of potential customers with one click, he said. "They can find a remote site that allows relays and they have a very large audience."

The bulk of objectionable UCEs plaguing American computer users now are routed through foreign countries, he said, including Asian countries such as China, as well as Brazil and Turkey. He produced a printed example that had its beginnings in Uruguay.

"You can't secure yourself against it. You could block all of Brazil, for instance, but then you'd lose all your legitimate messages too."

Utah is one of several states with anti-UEC laws, but Jonzy believes they do not have enough teeth to make a dent in the problem. HB80, passed last year by the Utah Legislature, requires that e-mail advertisements must contain a legal name and street address and a valid Internet domain name. (Spammers who disguise themselves by tapping into the domains of others are a major problem, Jonzy said. "The 'from' aspect of a message is easy to fake." Many computer users lack the expertise to track back to the original source.)

Under the Utah law, messages must be marked ADV: so they can be identified as advertising. The sender also must include a no-cost mechanism that allows the recipient to refuse any additional e-mails from the source.

If the e-mail originator does not comply, the recipient may sue for damages or $10 for each unsolicited commercial e-mail received or $25,000 per day that the violation occurs. Suits may include recovery of legal costs and attorney's fees.

The bill has fostered "major litigation," said former Rep. Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, the sponsor of HB80. When a number of complainants join in a class action, they stand a better chance and it becomes more financially feasible, she said. But she admits that the legislation needs "tweaking."

Ideally the federal government would regulate UCEs, Arent said. The fine line that demands protection of free speech rights is a major deterrent, she said. "We can't prohibit (UCEs). But we can regulate them."

Jonzy said the Federal Trade Commission accepts e-mailed complaints. He makes frequent use of uce@ftc.gov, he said. "All of our complaints go to that site." There is a toll free number as well: 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357.)

But while governments wrestle with the delicate issues, the U. spam fighters see "exponential growth" in the number of complaints they field — and no end in sight.


E-MAIL: tvanleer@desnews.com