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Microsoft patent bid puts crimp in effort to curb junk e-mail

NEW YORK - A row over intellectual property claims by Microsoft Corp. hasdealt a blow to an effort by Internet engineers to create a technical standardfor curbing junk e-mail.

The failure to reach consensus on Sender ID, the Microsoft-championedproposal, throws back to the free market a process many consider urgent inview of a rise in junk e-mail or spam.

Sender ID's effectiveness and compatibility with mail systems were inquestion before members of the Internet Engineering Task Force got hung up onthe patent battle, said Yakov Shafranovich, a leading anti-spam activist.

Dissolved last week

The task force, which works by consensus on Internet standards, dissolved aworking group on Sender ID last week after deciding that agreement could notbe achieved soon.

Some experts say the decision could speed up work on a spam-controltechnology from Yahoo Inc. that is considered stronger but more difficult toimplement.

The Internet Engineering Task Force is expected to create a working groupby November to craft standards for digitally signing messages, an anti-spamapproach Yahoo favors. Two other groups are in the works to explore additionalapproaches.

It's possible for two or more of the proposed technologies to work inconjunction.

The Microsoft and Yahoo proposals, along with one being tested by AmericaOnline Inc., aim to tackle e-mail "spoofing," the practice of sending messagesthat pretend to be from someone else. The technology wouldn't eliminate spam,but it could help identify and block a common spam technique.

Using Sender ID, Internet service providers would submit lists of theirmail servers' unique numeric addresses. On the receiving end, software wouldpoll a database to verify that a message was processed by one of thoseservers.

Microsoft has applied for a patent on the method for polling the database.The company promises to make the technology available to all, although itwould bar software developers from further licensing it. Several members ofthe open-source community find that unacceptable.

Technical concerns

As the Sender ID working group, formally known as MARID, began trying tocraft a compromise on the patent issue, members resurrected technical concernspreviously thought to have been settled. That's when the group's leadersdecided to abandon the project.

Microsoft spokesman Sean Sundwall said the company would continue to pushSender ID regardless of the decision by Internet Engineering Task Force. Hesaid smaller companies might hesitate without standards but that larger oneswon't change their plans.

"Once you get a critical mass of people adopting Sender ID, it becomes, forthe smaller sender, critically important [that] they adopt it as well," hesaid.

Andrew Newton, co-chairman of the working group, declined interviewrequests but said in an e-mail statement, "This is part of the IETF process,asking the community to gather more experience with sender authenticationschemes to get the final standard right."

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