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Gates Sends Letter on Spam to Congress

As momentum builds on Capital Hill for national junk e-mail standards and legislation, Bill Gates has sent a letter outlining Microsoft's position of how the spam crisis should be handled.

"Microsoft firmly believes that spam can be dramatically reduced, and that the solution rests squarely on the shoulders of industry and government. There is no silver-bullet solution to the problem. Rather, we believe that fully addressing this problem for the long-run requires a coordinated, multi-faceted approach that includes technology, industry self-regulation, effective legislation, and targeted enforcement against the most egregious spammers," Gates wrote in his letter -- a copy of which was obtained by internetnews.com.

Microsoft's Founder and Chairman sent the letter Wednesday addressed to Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Ernest Hollings (D-SC). The letter arrives as Senate hearings on spam get underway on Wednesday and a flurry of lobbyists jockey for position in Washington ahead of anti-spam legislation that two Internet insiders say is practically a done deal.

"There is so much fervor on this issue, right now. There is no question the FTC will set some rules and national anti-spam legislation will likely pass and set guidelines between what is pornographic and fraudulent versus permission-based, opt-in e-mail," said Al DiGuido, CEO of BigFoot Interactive, a full-service e-mail communications company.

"We will probably have legislation passed this year. ISPs spend an enormous amount to block spam and anything that reduces spam and aggravation for ISPs and customers would be a good thing," said Stewart Baker, general counsel for the United States Internet Service Provider Association, or USISPA, a Washington-based association representing ISPs nationwide.

DiGuido said a number of companies, lobbyists and legislators are coming forward with a variety of different plans for new anti-spam laws, but he isn't certain they will stop the tide of spam.

"Will anti-spam legislation end spam? The answer is no, but it is a step in the right direction," DiGuido said, adding that many spammers will move their servers overseas. There also are questions how the government would enforce any laws that are passed, and how penalties or fines would be administered.

"Anti-spam legislation by itself is going to be very helpful, but isn't going to solve the problem, largely because spammers are not concerned with the law," Baker says.

Bill Gates in his letter to Congress advocates the use of filtering technology, emphasizing the importance of distinguishing between legitimate e-mail, and unwanted spam.

"The industry is building better filters every day, and is investing heavily in research and development to open the door to greater innovation. We need filtering technologies that are easier for consumers to use, and more effective at determining which email messages are spam and which are desired communications. This differentiation will greatly reduce the risk of falsely misidentifying legitimate email as spam," Gates wrote.

But DiGuido's says his biggest concern is that the legislation may go too far, and hurt legitimate e-mail marketers.

"We don't want permission-based marketing getting mixed up with the pornographic and fraudulent e-mailers. A distinction needs to be made between the two," DiGuido said.

But drawing the line between what is an legitimate and illegitimate e-mail is blurry, and Gates in his letter suggests an e-mail certification system is needed.

"We support the establishment of an independent trust authority or authorities around the globe that could spearhead industry best practices, and then serve as an ongoing resource for email certification and customer dispute resolution. In short, these authorities could provide mechanisms to identify legitimate email, making it easier for consumers and businesses to distinguish wanted mail from unwanted mail. Of course, any technology designed to establish the identity of legitimate commercial firms and associate them with a trusted sender 'seal' should be based on open standards and developed with broad input from affected industries," Gates wrote in his letter to Congress.

DiGuido said there is momentum to come up with a system that would have reputable marketers pay a nominal fee per message to ISPs for messages that would reach their customers. At the same time, spammers would not likely be willing to pay the fee, and their messages could be clearly blocked or filtered.

However, the USISPA's Baker said ISPs are not advocating for such a system.

"We have not been pressing for solutions that have marketers pay ISPs for sending legitimate messages," Baker says.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is pushing for the .ADV designation to be attached to any advertising message, but delineating what is and isn't advertising may not be simple.

Microsoft's perspective on anti-spam legislation comes as Senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are introducing anti-spam legislation. Another junk e-mail is expected in the House from Representatives Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) to soon be introduced. A compromise of the two bills is ultimately likely to resemble an anti-spam law, which experts say will be passed before the end of this year.