Undoing Spam’s Damage: Can Consumers Reinstate Trust in an Email Message?

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What will it mean to know you can trust an email message?

The triangle of trust between volume email senders, mailbox providers (like Yahoo! and AOL) and recipients is severely bent if not broken. Recipients are regularly abused by malevolent actors masquerading as legitimate brands to send spam, phishing attacks and virus-laden messages. Mailbox providers are responding to these increasingly sophisticated threats by resorting to more aggressive filters and restricting default email functionality to text only. Legitimate senders are also subject to the mailbox provider policies designed to protect end users and can no longer be assured of reasonable delivery, placement or advanced message functionality.

Unfortunately, we cannot tap our magic red slippers together and wish to go back “home” to a time before criminals and other malevolent characters began using technology to abuse the free and open internet.

While there are a number of standards in development around the issue of authentication — technologies that make it possible to know that a message from a given bank really is from that bank — technology standards are only one part of a much larger ecosystem that also involves implementation, policy, and our own habits of what we can and cannot expect from email communications. The needed fix is not just in email technology, but in how email is used by all — senders, mailbox and service providers, and consumers.

What is most amazing is how quickly the email marketing industry has come to terms with diminished expectations from email. Only four short years ago we were talking about increasing functionality in emails and greater sophistication and relevance. Now we spend more time talking about the plumbing of email delivery and have gotten easily comfortable with uncertain delivery and creating effective communications without images and links.

So can email have a second act?

While a lot of excitement is generated by things like RSS and SMS/MMS, the truth is that with 150 million users in the United States today, email has become the absolute common denominator for reaching some of the most important consumer segments. What is really missing is simply an overlay of trust atop the email system.

As Federal Express pioneered a class of trusted, specially handled, and accountable delivery of documents, is possible to imagine a special class of email that could bring to email communications the benefits of accountability, trust, deliverability, and security.

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