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Internet service providers join forces in latest bid to stop to spam

Clogged in-boxes - with messages promoting body-part enhancements or work-from-home schemes - have become more than just a daily annoyance. A surge in spam is costing US companies billions of dollars, and leaving the private and public spheres scrambling to put an end to its reign.

Last week alone, two lawmakers introduced tough antispam laws; Internet service providers Microsoft Corp., AOL Time Warner, and Yahoo Inc. announced plans to join forces against junk e-mail; and the Federal Trade Commission kicked off a three-day conference bringing together regulators, business leaders, and antispam activists.

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For those deeply embedded in the spam wars, the unprecedented attention to unsolicited commercial e-mail last week shows how big the problem has grown. "But it is going to be an uphill battle," says Tom Geller, founder of the SpamCon Foundation in San Francisco.

Spam has risen steadily over the past few years. Users reported opening spam mail 6.7 million times in March, according to Brightmail, a San Francisco firm that develops antispam software. That's a fourfold increase from the 1.6 million junk e-mails received in October 2001.

The wasted time and energy associated with this traffic will cost US corporations more than $10 billion in 2003, according to market research firm, Ferris Research. The price tag is expected to be 300 percent higher than companies paid in 2001.

Rival companies Microsoft, AOL Time Warner, and Yahoo announced plans to develop technical standards to help filter junk e-mail, lobby for antispam legislation and enforcement, as well as take steps to stop spammers from creating fraudulent e-mail accounts. The firms call spam the No. 1 customer complaint.

Spam has spread drastically in recent years because of its economic appeal: It is cheap to both produce and send in mass numbers.

Antispam legislation now pending in Congress would outlaw misleading mass e-mails that hide the identity of the sender. The bill is widely supported, according to a poll by SurfControl, an Internet security software company.

But longtime antispam activists say the legislation doesn't go far enough. "What we need are laws that say 'no spamming,' " says Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., "not rules on how to spam."