Are White Lists the Best Answer to Spam?

Ken Werbach argues in Slate that spam filters are doomed because of the sheer volume of spam and that the future belongs to so-called white lists (Werbach really misses the boat here by failing to so much as mention client-side filtering).

A white list configures an e-mail client so that only only from a predefined list of individuals is allowed through.. Anyone sending e-mail not included on the list is typically sent an automated e-mail in response giving them an opportunity to prove the e-mail is not spam,

A major problem with this sort of system is that it excludes far too much legitimate e-mail (the number of people I want to receive e-mail from is much greater than the number of people’s whose e-mail I actually know).

But more importantly, I think Werbach is wrong when he implies that in order to be effective at stopping spam, that filters should block practically every spam e-mail. Werbach writes,

Whitelists are rare today, but they will become more common. The relentless growth of spam guarantees it. A filter that catches 80 percent of spam sounds great, and it is great if you get 10 spams a day. But when you get 500 a day, that same filter leaves you sorting through 100 opportunities to Make Money Fast!!!!!

Like it or not, the only way to kill spam is for an element of e-mail to die as well. There’s always been something charming and casual about e-mail.

But it is not necessary to completely kill spam. It is simply necessary to block enough of it system-wide such that spamming is no longer worth the effort for those who are trying to sell us penis enlargers and cheap airfares.

After all, the reason there is so much spam is that it is a relatively cost-effective way to sell products. Dramatically reduce the reach of spam and, hopefully, its cost-effectiveness, and spam will no longer be so appealing.


Death by Spam: The e-mail you know and love is about to vanish. Kevin Werbach, Slate.Com, November 18, 2002.

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