Are Spam Blockers Too Strict?

America Online’s controversial plan to charge mass e-mailers a fee to bypass their anti-spam system highlights the other, lesser-known, horn of the junk-e-mail problem: Filters that allegedly work too well.

At issue is the problem of “false positives,” industry-speak for legitimate messages mistakenly filtered out by anti-spam software.

“If AOL or another ISP decides that someone’s a spammer, then no e-mail from that individual gets through,” said EFF attorney Cindy Cohn, whose group opposes the AOL plan. “But there’s a fundamental difficulty at the heart of the spam debate: The only one who knows what you want delivered in your inbox is you.”

For years, e-mail users complained that torrents of unwanted messages clogged their inboxes and crimped their productivity. Now, e-mail users, marketers and mailing list operators are more worried that spam filters are blocking out too many wanted messages.

AOL isn’t the only company to face charges that it improperly blocks legitimate messages. But, as the world’s largest ISP for years, it has long borne the brunt of complaints from mass e-mailers over the problem.

Those concerns are seeping into the debate over a planned AOL program, set to go live in the next month, in which approved e-mail senders pay to guarantee delivery of their messages.

AOL’s CertifiedEmail service – which allows “accredited” senders to ensure their e-mails won’t be blocked by a spam filter — gets praise from some internet marketers who see it as a way to get legitimate messages to customers’ inboxes.

“False positives have been a problem with e-mail marketing for a very long time,” said Lou Mastria, vice president of interactive media at the Direct Marketing Association. He sees certified -e-mail as “a response to a market desire for at least one option for guaranteed delivery.”

The plan evokes other efforts to create premium and regular versions of the internet, with a superior experience reserved for those willing to pay the price. Telecommunications giants, including Comcast, complained recently that companies like Google get a free ride on their pipes and proposed charging different rates for different levels of service.

The move would be a blow to the longstanding tenet of net neutrality that requires carriers make their best effort to deliver all the bits handed off to them. That rule — enforced primarily by the honor system — is coming under new pressure as ISPs begin to use traffic shaping software to limit high-volume applications such as BitTorrent or apply usage caps to throttle so-called bandwidth hogs, among other things.

The trend has caught the attention of Congress. On Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) introduced a bill that would prevent internet companies from introducing two-tiered service.

Also last week, a varied coalition of interest groups, including MoveOn, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Gun Owners of America, announced their opposition to AOL’s program, saying it will create an unfair system for delivering e-mail. The groups say payment does not ensure a message is legitimate and the certified e-mail program won’t help non-profits and mailing-list operators whose missives are frequently misidentified as spam.

Estimates vary as to how large a problem “false positives” represent. JupiterResearch estimated that in commercial mailings, 12 percent of marketing e-mail was blocked because of false positives in 2005, down from 18 percent in 2004.

Ken Schneider, chief architect with Symantec, which sells spam-filtering tools used by most large U.S. internet service providers, says false positive rates are actually much lower than the Jupiter research indicates. It’s hard to get an exact figure, however, because determining what qualifies as spam is a matter of opinion. What marketers call “false positives” may be messages that aren’t technically spam, but nonetheless do not contain information that end users want.

“There’s a very gray notion of what’s spam and what’s not,” Schneider said.

A particularly troublesome gray area, Schneider said, involves affiliate marketers. These marketers often send e-mails to people who signed up on a website with whom the affiliate has a marketing agreement. The recipient of the e-mail, however, probably isn’t aware of the arrangement and has no idea why they’re receiving the message.

Meanwhile, the amount of obvious spam getting blocked is high as ever. Last Monday, AOL estimated it had blocked 1.4 billion spam e-mails by late afternoon. Schneider estimates that two-thirds of all e-mail sent today is spam.

The battle lines are largely the same as they have been for years, while spammers get sneakier and the technology for tracking them continues to evolve.

Some of the oldest tactics for spotting junk e-mail still work. Spam filters isolate bulk mailers who generate a lot of complaints. ISPs and filtering firms also maintain blacklists of known spammers and “whitelists” of legitimate bulk e-mailers.

More recently, however, Schneider said, junk-mail fighters have been incorporating “traffic shaping” technology, which allows an ISP to restrict the rate at which it accepts incoming e-mails based on a sender’s reputation for spamming.

Cohn said ISPs would better serve users by quarantining suspect spam messages in special mailboxes. That way, recipients would have the option of checking for false positives. If an ISP does block an e-mail, she says the sender and recipient should be notified and told why.

While AOL’s certified e-mail program may help marketers, not even the system’s developer, Mountain View, California, Goodmail Systems, sees it as a way to fight spam. Goodmail describes the program instead as “a way to identify good mail.”

To join the CertifiedEmail program, e-mail senders must meet accreditation criteria and pay $200 to $400, plus a quarter of a cent per e-mail. In exchange, AOL guarantees the e-mails will get to a user’s inbox and will bear a seal identifying them as certified messages.

AOL says it plans to launch the service in the next month. Goodmail said it is also working with Yahoo on a certified e-mail program.

Under current laws, opponents of certified e-mail can probably do little to prevent its adoption, said David Sorkin, a professor at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Sorkin doubts the program will be popular with e-mail users. Even so, given the strides ISPs have made in reducing inbox clutter, a few “certified” marketing messages aren’t his biggest worry.

“Personally I’m much more concerned about missing a few legitimate messages than figuring out what to delete,” he said.

Joanna Glasner –

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