Spam filters' collateral damage

Blocking devices can go too far, keep out e-mail users had requested

The Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 30, 2003

I work for a private high school. I send our newsletters to alumni by e-mail.

Less than two years ago, we followed the protocol to gain e-mail addresses through the opt-in process -- the alumni have to sign up on our Web site to receive the newsletter by e-mail.

After we spent money and time to do this right, a new e-mail protocol emerged. We had to invest more time and money because now you must do confirmed or double opt-ins -- once people add their name to the list, they reply to a confirmation e-mail that they did indeed request to have the e-mail newsletter sent to them.

If you don't follow this procedure, your e-mail delivery rates fall drastically. This was supposed to satisfy the latest opt-in requirements. But that went out the window when the Internet service and e-mail providers began running filters that read all and block an undisclosed percentage of e-mails.

Our school has also been falsely blacklisted by some Internet service providers. They now run filters that essentially read all e-mail without regard to whether the recipient wants it. If it sounds like an ad, it's blocked.

Furthermore, after the ISPs block it, the e-mail is lost. There is no protocol to send me an e-mail to state the e-mail was blocked.

We know it is blocked because constituent contacts who work in informational technology departments are calling me and telling me so. Or because constituents called and asked why they don't get my e-mail any more, even though they are still in my distribution list.

I have invested more than 1,000 hours learning what I have to do next, what tools to use, what words I can't use, to get my e-mail delivered to everyone who asked for it. I am still not there.

The filters have no way and never will have a way of interpreting the end users' personal choice of what to receive.

My nonprofit, private high school sends event information to our alumni, and my e-mail has been blocked because I used terms such as "alumni admitted free." I didn't know "free" was a forbidden word and thus now restricted from my vocabulary.

It's a given: Spam is unpopular. But the response to that has been an erratic, error-riddled, no-protocol, unchallenged and unaccountable block to whatever the big ISPs think may be an ad.

Sometimes the ad is spam (unwelcome) and sometimes it is not. But if it looks like an ad and sounds like an ad, then it's an ad and therefore -- by the ISP's filter definition -- unwelcome. What gives them the right to block commerce?

How much e-commerce is lost in our sluggish economy because advertising phobics don't want to spend 30 seconds deleting e-mail they don't want?

Don't get me wrong, I don't like getting the Viagra and casino ads, either. But my ISP does not block my e-mails at all, and I get about 25-30 per day. It takes me less than one minute to read the subject line and trash it like I do walking into my house with the snail mail (some makes it into the house and most hits the trash can).

I believe in the protection of e-mail under the First Amendment protection of commercial free speech.

The network of big ISPs and mail services banding together and throwing out welcomed, confirmed opt-in e-mails and newsletters because their algorithm said it was probably spam is wrong. Period.

Jill Keogh is a high school alumni director in Lisle, Ill.

Forum: Amti-spam crusade

By Jill Keogh, Lisle, IL

What's next, filtering out political party messages your ISP doesn't agree with?

I learned about the problem through my work but I see the problem on a larger scale and see the true harm to us by allowing unrestricted blocking power to ISPs. Individual desktops is where the filtering decisions should be made. Employee email may also be filtered consistent with the policies of the private organization.

Spam has become a misnomer and is being widely misused as a term and is creating much misunderstanding.

When IT people talk about spam, they don't mean unsolicited email anymore (the way congress defined it)...they've just blown that off and have lumped all advertising into the category of spam. They assume no one wants advertising and have gone nuts creating or implementing software watchdogs that sniff out mail that they suspect is an ad.

Problem is, they'll never apply a single rule across every email they process that will satisfy all the customers. But they do it anyway. That is the essense of it. That is why there are so many errors and they are getting many complaints from businesses. There is nothing inherently wrong with advertising. In fact there is something very healthy for our economy in it. There is something wrong with much of the email (particularly when false or true spam) but the solutions are as bad as the problem if people don't speak up. They are obstructing ecommerce whether or not they passionately defend their right to do so.

In a random test and a matrix of 'tolerances' for spam using the popular spamassassin tool, approx. 52,000 emails were identified as wrongly blocked out of 255,000 total blocks (just in one test). Not to mention who says the other 80% that were blocked were 'unwelcomed'. Did the filter call the person on the phone and ask if they wanted the email before they blocked it and deleted it?

ISPs rely on the paradox that you don't know what email you didn't receive.

Filters are arbitrarily configured by independent people exercising their own controls (opinions, censorship, advertising intolerance and sales phobia) over what email they will or will not deliver.

Beware the ISP that brags about how you won't get spam if you go with them! They are filtering to the max! Become their customer and you condone their right to think for you and make your decisions.

I don't want other humans deciding what email (or snail mail) I should receive. If you hate/loath spam, go to and search for spam. You will find countless, user friendly, freeware to help you make the best decisions to block email based on your personal choices. I shouldn't be the one telling you this, your ISP should! Tell your ISP not to block it though. The problem is easily solved if people stop complaining and just install their own filters. I agree we don't need government...except to tell the ISPs to back off.



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