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Maybe I'm on my own on this one, but email as a whole seems to be a disaster. Spam accounts for around 9 in 10 emails that are sent, and a lot of resources both human and electronic are spent on dealing with it and the problems it causes. It's not uncommon for legitimate messages to be rejected by mail servers, and sender verification is very weak.

What would it take to make email a clean, usable communications method?

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closed as off topic by Evan Anderson, l0c0b0x, Jimmy Shelter, Mark Henderson, splattne Sep 3 '09 at 7:43

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This doesn't seem like appropriate forum for this type of question. –  djhowell Sep 2 '09 at 17:32
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Agreed, and voting as such. –  Evan Anderson Sep 2 '09 at 17:35
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This should really be named more appropriately - you are really complaining about spam, not email. The fact that there is as much spam as there is certainly doesn't "break" email. Try not using it for two weeks and then see how broken you still think it is. –  Wayne Koorts Sep 2 '09 at 18:38
    
I'm not sure why this question isn't appropriate? Does SF not allow deeper discussions about technology problems? This certainly isn't going into a Exchange/Exim/Postfix religious war. –  Doug Luxem Sep 2 '09 at 19:12
    
We could argue for years over this one and still get nowhere. Voted to close, but pity you can't pick more than 1 reason. –  Jimmy Shelter Sep 2 '09 at 19:20
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7 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Look at any other communication protocol that works well and they have two key features:

  • Senders are authenticated and "known"
  • Recipients only receive messages from "allowed" senders

For examples - take a look at most IM clients/protocols, Facebook, and other social mediums.

How do you translate this to an antiquated email system? The first is to authenticate the sender. SPF is a half-ass way to do this; however, the main problem is that a sender can authenticate themselves. Instead, I think TLS should be required on SMTP. This process would require both the sender and receiver to obtain credentials from a trusted third-party, and it already supported on most mail systems.

For the second issue, simple grey/white lists would work to prevent emails from unauthorized senders.

The problem with requiring both of these options today is that very few SMTP servers are configured for TLS and no-one expects a grey list to prevent their email from coming through. So, this would take some work on both administrators and end-user to change how they currently use email, but it would not require a complete overhaul of how email works.

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I would like to thank you for being one of the only people that didn't interpret my question as a political debate. –  Zimmy-DUB-Zongy-Zong-DUBBY Sep 2 '09 at 19:28
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It would help if you where a little bit more clear on what you were asking. –  Josh Brower Sep 2 '09 at 19:54
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Pigeons

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I definitely agree. As defined by RFC 1149: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_over_Avian_Carriers. –  Massimo Sep 2 '09 at 17:40
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Thanks for the link Massimo, I'm glad RFCs can also be somewhat fun. –  l0c0b0x Sep 2 '09 at 19:00
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A lot of work. Lots of bright people have put a good deal of effort into the process. It ain't easy.

A large part of the problem is economics - it doesn't cost the senders much to send spam, so they do. The only need an infinitesimal response rate for it to be worth their while.

The hard part of applying economics to the problem of email is that botnets are available to those engaged in illicit operations, so the charge would be made to the 'wrong' people. Well, 'wrong' in the sense that the identity that appears to send the email isn't who triggered the sending; however, people running insecure machines would perhaps face costs that would make them realize that they were running insecure machines. The harder part is ensuring that the cost of providing people with easily compromised machines is properly conveyed back to the providers of those easily compromised machines.

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As much as you might hope for a clean solution to emails you're not going to get it. The system would need an overhaul which would break millions of servers across the world. Any change made would need to be backwards compatible, which would not meet your clean setup.

See EHLO and HELO

The internet used to be friendly and only used by academics and so much of the older protocols are weak, and dirty.

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The only reason spam is still around is thanks to enough people (to make it worth the spammers' while) buying the advertised products through said spam messages. It's supply and demand just like any other economic system.

Where people are involved the solution is generally the same: education. We need to find a way to let the layman know that encouraging spam is not a good thing. This may mean we need to provide alternative means of supplying those same products in a way that is as accessible as the offerings provided by spammers.

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The only waiy to "fix" email is to replace SMTP with some other protocol that is designed from the outset to have broadly similar functionality but be more resilient to the types of problems inherent in the design of SMTP (itself a relic of far more innocent times). Even that would require large scale uptake from all the server vendors, client vendors, server admins and end users, and would create a period of utter havoc while we would be waiting for several competing standards to settle down into a single accepted one. Nope, ain't gonna see that happen any time soon.

Attempting to patch SMTP is just papering over cracks, bottom line is that the protocol was just not designed to be secure.

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won't work. been tried/thought-of many times before. 1. any replacement for system is inevitably going to be backwards compatible with SMTP, 2. you won't get everyone to change at once (or even within a reasonable time frame) - hell, there are still people using ancient sendmail –  cas Sep 2 '09 at 21:43
    
it's not a technical problem, anyway. it's social and cultural. –  cas Sep 2 '09 at 21:44
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the only thing that would ever have a chance of working is an open bounty / hunting season on spammers. if you spam, you're fair game. and explicitly allow cruel and unusual methods or even torture rather than require a clean kill.

mandatory prison sentences for people who buy from spammers wouldn't hurt either.

the solution is worse than the problem.

ps: not advocating that solution. just despairing. people are the problem, and people suck.

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