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Holding The Internet Accountable

PALM DESERT, Calif. -- The non-stop praise and huzzahs took a brief time out here at the DEMO conference, where dozens of new technology presenters have been regularly applauded and praised.

Late Wednesday, Tom Gillis, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at security provider IronPort, sounded the alarm on the growing problem of spam and viruses and said ISPs needed to shoulder more responsibility.

Tom Gillis
Tom Gillis
Source: IronPort

Gillis wasn't at DEMO to show off a new product or service; he was interviewed on stage by show producer Chris Shipley who wanted to hear more about IronPort's remarkable success story. A startup that debuted its first product in 2003 at the DEMO conference, IronPort was purchased by Cisco  last month for $830 million.

Gillis said the company's original vision, when it formed in 2000, was to address the growing problem of e-mail spam. Now as part of Cisco, IronPort continues to provide anti-spam, as well as broader Web security solutions. But Gillis said ISPs will have to do more if spam, malware  and other Web security issues are ever going to be addressed comprehensively.

"Those that control the servers need to be held accountable for the content they are spewing," said Gillis. "It's like pollution, but they don't bear the cost of cleaning it up."

Instead, Gillis said users and security companies have to deal with the digital mess. "The current solutions [e.g. filtering] aren't going to scale." For example, he noted that the amount of spam keeps doubling annually, so filter accuracy has to reach higher and higher levels just to keep up.

Later Wednesday evening at a press Q&A, Gillis expanded on his remarks. "You have to infuse accountability into the Internet itself," he said. "The current approach of filtering isn't going to work."

Computer industry veteran Mitchell Kurtzman (former CEO of Liberate and Powersoft) agreed with Gillis' call for more accountability. He also said he favored tightening some of the freedom Web users take for granted.

"Users will have to give up some of their anonymity for us to get to a safer Internet," Kurtzman, now a partner in the Hummer Winblad venture capital firm, told internetnews.com. "Someone can be anonymous online, but some [law enforcement or government entity] should be able to find out their identity if they've done anything illegal."

Gillis said it's "incredibly easy" for someone to shed their identity on the Web and jump to another server where they continue spamming or engage in other illicit activity. "But if we start the mechanisms to identify all senders, it will make it a lot harder" to hide.

"Right now there's no incentive for the ISPs to stop [spammers, etc.], so they don't bother," said Gillis. "They need great tools."

Asked what company had the best chance of defeating spam and other security issues, Gillis said he thought it was a winner-take-all scenario where only the biggest, resource-rich companies would ultimately succeed.

Not surprisingly, he feels IronPort is in the driver's seat with the resources of Cisco behind it. "Microsoft  is very serious about the space and Symantec  is also large and well capitalized," said Gillis.

Symantec previewed its Identity Client earlier in the day; part of what it called its "Security 2.0" vision of new security products and services.