France is hoping to shut down spammers more quickly through a system that makes it easier for users to notify ISPs (Internet service providers) when unsolicited e-mails are coming from their network.
The French government funded the development of an open-source toolbar for Microsoft's Outlook and Mozilla's Thunderbird e-mail programs that people can use to report suspected spam, said John Graham-Cumming, an Englishman who built the software for the project, called Signal Spam.
"From the French perspective, spam is like any other criminal activity that is affecting the French people," Graham-Cumming said.
Most users today simply delete spam email from their inboxes, in part because they don't have a simple tool for reporting spam to their ISP. The SignalSpam project aims to provide them with such a tool.
When users receive spam messages, the toolbar provides an easy way for them to forward the message to a central database. The messages are then sent to the ISP whose network they originated from, and the ISP decides whether to shut down the account of the sender, Graham-Cumming said.
France is ranked as the 10th worst country for generating spam, according to The Spamhaus Project, which publishes a list that can be used in e-mail servers to block known spamming IP (Internet protocol) addresses. The U.S. is the worst, followed by China, Russia and the U.K.
If a spam message originates outside of France, SignalSpam takes no action. If a message comes from a legitimate marketer, the system can send an automated response to the person who reported it telling them how to unsubscribe to the mailing list, Graham-Cumming said. Marketers are encouraged to register with Signal Spam.
The system's success will depend on people's willingness to install the tool bar. Since the project launched in May, about 3.5 million spam e-mails have been collected in the database, which can be used to generate statistics on spam trends.
By the end of the year, Signal Spam plans to release a toolbar for Outlook Express, another Microsoft e-mail client, Graham-Cumming said. Signal Spam is also in talks with Web-based e-mail providers, such as Microsoft and Google, on developing a reporting mechanism.
Some ISPs have been accused of profiting by allowing spammers to use their network, while other ISPs don't take action against spammers due to the expense of shutting them down. However, Signal Spam has received broad support from French ISPs, according to Graham-Cumming.
In the next couple months he expects the database to start to reveal spam trends that could shed greater light on how to stop the problem.
Eventually, Signal Spam may also turn its attention to closing phishing sites more quickly. Spam e-mails often try to entice people to a fraudulent Web site in order to trick them into divulging their personal information.