RealTime IT News

Vanquish Set to Launch Anti-Spam Fee Service

The past few weeks have seen an onslaught of anti-spam solutions, but a new startup, Vanquish, aims to tackle the problem a tad differently: by allowing recipients to charge spammers for each mail they receive.

The Marlborough, Mass.-based firm is expected to formally announce its product Monday, when it also unveils its first beta-testing Internet Service Provider, Netway.

Vanquish is premised on raising the cost of spam by imposing fines. That idea is that if any e-mail recipient can penalize senders of unwanted mail, the fee will present a barrier to spammers -- but not to legitimate mailers.

Like mail-proxy services such as Brightmail, the service acts like a gatekeeper to users' inboxes. Marketers are expected to buy the Vanquish product or open an account with the firm directly -- either of which will grant them a small account with a stored value of about $2.50, and a public key that they can attach to their outbound mailings.

On the recipient's system, Vanquish's technology scans the attachment and then asks the recipient whether to accept, reject, or penalize the sender. Penalties are likely to be only about five cents per e-mail -- but for most bulk mailers, those fees could quickly add up. If mailers deplete their account, their e-mail will cease to go through.

For mailers without the key, Vanquish's service will issue a challenge -- for instance, a simple, preschool-level question -- that would identify a human sender and route their mail accordingly, but which would deny mail from a bulk, computer-based sender (thereby encouraging bulk mailers to open an account with the firm).

Vanquish okays mail from the senders listed in a user's address book, while also approving mail from people with whom the user has corresponded.

As most anti-spam solutions seek only to filter incoming messages, Vanquish's fine-based approach to the matter might seem unusual -- but the firm's ties to a number of Internet industry luminaries could lend it the credibility needed to reach critical mass.

The firm attracted some notice in July when Esther Dyson wrote a favorable note that was distributed by The New York Times' syndication service. Another of Vanquish's many high-profile advisers is Ron Revest, founder of RSA Security and inventor of public key cryptography.

Aside from the recent launch of competing anti-spam solutions like Postiva and Habeas within the past month, the fact that Internet industry celebrities are also getting into the action suggests that the time might well be nigh for substantial, self-regulatory action to curb spam and promote targeted e-mail marketing.

"It's a huge productivity problem," said Vanquish Chief Executive Philip Raymond. "I've got work to do and a baby daughter to go home to and I'm spending 45 minutes each day in the morning and an hour in the evening sorting through spam ... Most spammers don't bother with demographics. The medium's practically free, so they don't need to."

Since e-mail is relatively inexpensive compared to postal mail, Raymond said he expects that legitimate marketers will continue to find e-mail mailings viable at the price points he's considering for the bond.

"Five cents is still much cheaper than mail," he said. "Let's say the receiver purchased several laptops recently. [Recipients] probably would not object to receiving an offer for a cheap laptop. Or let's say they've got an outstanding mortgage but have not been reading the financial news lately. They might like to know that mortgage rate have dropped like nine times in the past six months. One of our investors thinks that one-tenth of a penny is enough to stop spam."

At the moment, the company is seeking ISPs to join its beta testing program alongside North Andover, Mass.-based Netway. In addition to the fact that spam is sapping a frustrating amount of ISPs' resources -- Netway said it had found that only about a tenth of all e-mail that it handled was legitimate -- Vanquish is offering inducements to woo ISPs into the trial. The offers include a period of free service, and the right to keep most of the penalty money.

Once the product launches in earnest, the company anticipates asking ISPs to pay $2 to $4 annually per user. In return, ISPs will have the right to distribute copies of Vanquish's software to their subscribers -- a move that ideally will cut down on the amount of unwanted mail on their servers.

Ultimately, Raymond hopes to eliminate the challenge system as well.

"We don't believe it's effective for the long term," he said. "If our system gets too popular, it will invite hackers who will find some method for solving the challenge, and then we'll have to hire programmers to improve the challenge, and we'll experience spiraling costs. On the other hand, if we're that popular, people will understand the benefits of Vanquish and we should be able to eliminate the 'challenge' feature.