Earlier this month in Geneva, a conference organised by the United Nations hosted regulators from more than 60 countries, and there was only one topic on the agenda - combating the spam "epidemic".
The conference heard that up to 85% of all email in the world may be spam, compared with just 35% only one year ago. Regardless of the numbers - whether they be percentages of spam, productivity losses due to the spam deluge or the amount some companies are spending on insurance from spam-induced sexual harassment suits - one fact is clear: something has to be done.
The key to this problem is two-fold; technical solutions to make it harder for spammers to operate effectively, and legislative solutions to ensure they can be punished when they're caught. And you can't have one without the other...
Most of the energy and investment so far has been in the technical solutions arena, which, unfortunately has not solved the problem. Technical solutions have mostly focused on complex and expensive filtering initiatives, which are engaged in a constant race with spammers to try and get the upper hand.
A more common-sense and human approach is to keep a list of people you trust to receive email from, and when someone new emails you, ask them once to verify themselves. This would be cumbersome if you did it manually, but thankfully, there's a 'challenge-response' tool which can keep track of who you trust, who you don't trust, and can even ask people to confirm they're real to automatically add them to the whitelist. The reason this method works better than filtering is that spammers never send emails from a legitimate email address; thus they'll never reply to confirm they're there.
All of the technical solutions in the world have limited value if spammers can just keep on spamming. The solution is to make spamming against the law, and to provide law enforcers with the means to prosecute spammers. Because the law is always catching up with technology, and the internet is international, the first steps in providing a legal framework for prosecution came into force in a number of countries earlier this year.
While an individual country can't make a large difference to the international internet, the creation of similar laws that recognise other nations is closing the net around spammers, many of who are closely aligned with organised crime elements around the world.
The United Nations sponsored conference this month in Geneva is an important step, and with lawmakers around the world taking action, we're hopefully getting closer to turning the tide on Spam.