Rediff Logo News Find/Feedback/Site Index
December 20, 1999


Search Rediff

E-Mail this feature to a friend

The Nemesis of Junk Mail

Shanthi Shankarkumar

Of course, spam -- or junk e-mail -- is a waste of time and money. And the most that most of us do is slowly destroy the delete key in annoyance. And among the freshest of solutions in the market is Sunil Paul's

Brightmail Inc has advanced e-mail services and software to enhance the quality and utility of e-mail. But its initial product, the Brightmail Anti-Spam Service, fights unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Sunil Paul's anti-spam program, launched in October 1997, covers nearly 35 million e-mail accounts provided by its 25 partners.

Brightmail has formed technology and distribution partnerships with Netscape, Sendmail and Other partners include AT&T WorldNet Service, Concentric Network, EarthLink, Excite, FastNet, FlashNet, Juno Online Services and

Brightmail runs a 24-hour operation center where it identifies new and existing spam and then forwards information about the spam to a "spam wall" assigned to each user. The spam wall uses software to identify and block spam messages before they reach a user's in-box, Paul says.

Almost 50 per cent of e-mail users say they get spammed six or more times a week, according to a recent study of 13,000 e-mail users commissioned by Bright Light and conducted by the Gartner Group. Users want their ISPs to protect them from spam, the study found.

Paul, chief executive officer of Bright Mail, was inspired to develop a better solution to the spam problem because his personal email accounts were overrun by spam.

What makes Brightmail effective?

"The biggest difference is that it works. There are a number of approaches out there that are able to stop 10 to 20 per cent of spam and some proprietary approaches that stop up to 50 per cent. But nobody else can match us for both effectiveness and accuracy. The big difference is that we have got people and technology," says Paul. The fact that the spam filtering is done at the ISP levels rather than the user level makes the Brightmail service unique.

So how does it work?

"We basically set up large numbers of e-mail addresses all over the net, those addresses are set up to receive spam and only spam. Those addresses are forwarded to an operational center and there we have people develop new techniques to stop any new spam attack. Those techniques or rules are sent out to our customers. Spam is sent to a temporary holding area where it is automatically deleted after a while," he says.

Paul's work profile really gives an insight into his personality. He is man in a hurry, driven by this passion to make a difference.

Born in Punjab, Paul was four when his family migrated to America. He spent his early childhood in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1987, he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

Buoyed by the news of the American space program, he moved to Washington to work at NASA. But the experience was not very rewarding.

"I regretted taking up the job with NASA because I expected to do more engineering work but ended up doing operational and maintenance work," he says.

From there, the restless Paul moved to a consulting firm that worked for NASA and then joined a Congressional agency that gave advice on different policy options.

"The world of policy warts and engineering geeks appealed to me," he says, laughing. The Internet was a young domain then and Paul would spend evenings after work exploring it. He eventually convinced the agency to have a web browser put on every desktop -- those were the days when Mosaic was the only web browser available.

The world of government was too slow-paced for this man who liked to leap his way through life.

"After three years, I realized I was not cut out for the government. I needed to get things done quickly and feel the impact of what I was doing and not have to wait years to make a difference," he says.

He then joined AOL, where, as an Internet product manager, he was responsible for introducing Internet services to AOL.

AOL's size made him worry if he could make the impact he was looking for, but he need not have worried.

"I definitely made a significant impact and helped contribute to AOL's Internet strategy," he says.

But a year later he was ready to enter a new phase in his work life. He had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur and so joined up with a friend to start a pioneering "push media" company, Freeloader.

Paul has no regrets about leaving AOL.

"I needed to have greater control over my destiny. It was as much an emotional decision as a financial one. In fact, on a financial level one might have done well just staying on," he says.

Paul says he not only learned about the Internet at AOL but also the company's "insane focus on the customer."

He says he is amazed that no other ISP have been able to replicate this single-minded focus on the customer. "They used to call it 'Steve's phenomenon'. Every time anybody came up with a new idea, they'd ask, 'Would Steve's mom be able to use it?' and if the answer is 'no', then the idea died!" says Paul, with an admiring chuckle. Steve, of course, being Steve Case, AOL's CEO.

Of course, Paul also realized that he likes being the boss.

"I don't want to work for someone," he said. " I have great faith in my ability."

Prior to starting Brightmail, Sunil created Freeloader, Inc, the first company to offer a web-based push service. In 1996, Individual, Inc acquired Freeloader for $ 38 million, making it the best and second-best performing investments in the VC portfolios of Euclid and Softbank, respectively.

Less than a year later, Freeloader closed down. But for Paul there was no looking back.

The money made from the sale would eventually lead to the starting of Brightmail, which, ironically, keeps information away from your machine, by filtering out spam from your mail.

The Brightmail story has been celebrated in a number of magazine articles; CNN too has run a feature on it. But Sunil Paul feels he has taken just a handful of steps.

"There are very significant announcements coming up. We are going to roll out big customers," he says.

"We are also planning to go into anti-virus and other products that will make e-mail an indispensable tool. Money is not really the motivating force. The real motivator is making a significant contribution to the world before I leave it. I see a lot of things that can be improved."

The Problem's Getting Bigger: Sunil Paul

Spam is costing the industry tens of millions of dollars a month in bandwidth, customer service and systems administration. Between 15 to 30 per cent of the average 14 million e -mail messages that America Online gets daily, is spam.

Most large Internet Service Providers have four to six people dedicated to combating the problem. UCE (unsolicited commercial e-mail) or spam costs these companies roughly $ 1 million each month, which works out to $ 1-$ 2 per subscriber. A one-million-person ISP will typically lose about $ 7.7 million a year because of spam.

It is the odd economics of the Internet that created the junk e-mail problem. Unlike a piece of paper mail which costs 25 cents to a dollar to send, there is no per-message charge to send e-mail- it is included in your monthly fee. All a spammer needs to send out a million messages is a dial-up Internet account, a million e-mail addresses and a computer.

"This is a problem that's only getting worse," said Paul who launched Brightmail in July 1997 to fight spam. A survey has also found that the amount of spam increases the longer you have an account with an ISP.

In the past the best way to protect yourself from being spammed was to be very careful about disclosing your e-mail address. If you avoided putting your e-mail address on a web page, if you did not participate in on-line discussion groups or chat sessions, you were pretty safe. But hiding your e-mail address is getting difficult by the day. More and more spammers are sending e-mail to any address they think is valid. If the message gets through, they are jubilant, if it doesn't they don't care.

According to technology columnist Simon Garfinkel, the real spam problem in the coming year will not be from fly-by-night operations and scam artists. It will be from legitimate companies that view unsolicited bulk e-mail as a way to market themselves more effectively.

Another survey conducted earlier this year by has shown that pornographers are responsible for 30.2 per cent of the spam on the Internet today. There were two particularly disturbing aspects of this kind of spam. Some of them were quite graphic in the description of content being offered while many were very vague using ambiguous and misleading text to disguise the true nature of solicitation.

Just behind the sex sellers, 29.6 per cent of spam hawks get-rich-quick and work-from-home schemes, many of them illegal. The remainder advertised different products and services and a small percentage illegally offered stock tips.

Legislation and lawsuits don't deter spammers. Portals and ISPs have fought spam with mixed success. AOL won a lawsuit in 1997 that prevented one spammer, who offers striptease shows on the Internet from soliciting AOL members. One of the frustrations is that it is increasingly difficult to track down spammers. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 50 per cent of spam is fraudulent, therefore 50 per cent is already illegal, yet that has not stemmed the tide.

State laws are already in effect, but they have not had any success in stopping the spammers. Unlike telephone, fax and physical mail that have been regulated successfully by law and agreements, e-mail has managed to fall outside the jurisdiction of the law.

"If a US law is passed, it will not help spammers in India and Belgium," he said.

Previous: Shyamalan's Mouse Roars At Box-Office

Next: Gordon Wilson's Son Charged With Sex Abuse

Tell us what you think of this feature