For various complicated reasons I won't go into here, I had need earlier today of a fresh, unused web-based email account.

I was in a hurry, so I picked My Own Email (MOE) pretty much at random.  Served the immediate purpose, and I'll never have need of it again, so I wasn't too worried about due diligence.

Took two minutes to set up before I could log in for the first time - after clicking "no" to all the free newsletter offers.

The astonishing thing was that the very first time I logged in, before I'd ever sent message one, I already had 129 new messages in my Inbox.  All spam and viruses, of course. 

This steaming pile of ordure had already trigggered a flashing sign at the top of the page saying: "Your account is at a critical level. You have reached 100% of your storage."


Even more irritating - the Outbox showed one Sent message - a virus, relayed through my brand new account to some unsuspecting slub somewhere with a name in close alphabetical sequence to my own.


The MOE homepage has a fairly prominent link to their "anti-spam policy", which states:

"Use of our system or email addresses for spamming or other abusive or illegal purposes is STRICTLY prohibited. We will assist in anyway possible any company or individual harmed by such activity. This includes supplying your IP and time/date stamp, assistance in IP tracing, forwarding addresses and any other information we can provide. Your account will be immediately deleted, and your IP barred from our site. We have ZERO tolerance for such activity." (their emphasis)

Yeah, right.  What this doesn't say, of course, is that they'll happily turn a blind eye to people spamming their own subscribers.

Strikes me that this is one of the defining differences between email accounts run through a real ISP and free web-based email. 

Most ISPs focus considerable resources on the challenge of keeping spam out of their subscribers' inboxes.  Makes sense.  A happy subscriber is an un-spammed subscriber. 

At the same time, one of the dirty little secrets of the Internet is that there are ISPs out there who make a ton of money by turning a blind eye to what they must realize is a torrent of mail streaming out through their systems.  Spam that leaves their server headed for somebody else is what Douglas Adam's memorably characterised as an "SEP" - Somebody Else's Problem.

Meanwhile, web-based email providers such as Yahoo!, Hotmail, and MOE can easily claim "ZERO tolerance" for spammers trying to use their service, because, quite simply, no self-respecting spammer would be likely to use a freebie account - it just wouldn't support the enormous volumes of outbound traffic they need to generate to make the economics of their "business" work. 

It's very easy for MOE to put up a stiffly worded anti-spam policy prohibiting the use of their system for spam or other "abusive or illegal purposes" as this is simply not a problem they're likely to have in any big way. 

And Hotmail, Yahoo! and the rest ain't bothered spending a lot of money on inbound spam filtering for their free accounts - the switching costs for the users are so low, and it's not like they're a major revenue source anyway.  Screw 'em.

Back in the ISP world, the postmasters and network managers continue to fight an uphill battle to keep their users from getting spammed; while ignoring, either by choice or because they lack the resources, the equally big problem of spam egress from their servers. The same spam that is very often headed for the unfiltered inboxes of the free web-based email services.

Fighting spam is not just about protecting your subscribers from others; ISPs must also protect others from themselves. The Canadian government's "Anti-spam task force" is a worthwhile and laudable initiative.  But legislation and litigation won't tackle the problem at root.

Attacking the problem top down is like a game of whack-a-mole. For every spammer you successfully prosecute, there's another five stepping up to take his/her place. The economics are just too attractive.

And filtering at the individual inbox level only treats the symptoms, not the cancer. Doesn't matter how smart the filter or how many individuals are using it - you're just blocking, not stopping.

It's a self-sustaining ecosystem. Dvorak (and others) are right: email is dead.

Unless we do something like getting all the Netheads into a room to figure out better ways to tackle the problem at the server level.

Working together, the combined resources of the Canadian ISP community massively outweigh those available to the spammers.  If they can coordinate their efforts and orchestrate a planned response to threats as they arise, we may not be able to fix the global problem, but maybe we can at least drive the spammers away from Canadian ISPs.

We'll still see spam coming in from outside the country, of course. But as Canadian servers are currently the second biggest source of spam traffic worldwide, it's still well worth us trying to put a lid on things within our borders. Renegade ISPs will find they lose friends pretty quickly if they continue to ignore the issue of spam being relayed through their servers.

[Disclosure: I'm more than a little biased here.  I'm one of the authors of the CAIP/AOL Canada anti-spam roundtable initiative.]