AOL Accused of Collateral Damage in Spam War

By Erin Joyce
April 14, 2003

America Online's latest battle in the spam wars has sparked criticism from online groups who say its policy of blocking e-mail from dynamically-assigned IP addresses is creating too much collateral damage with legitimate e-mail relay users.

Online discussion sites such as have been piling up postings lately over AOL's recent move to block residential broadband users on AT&T/Comcast's system from using public relay mail channels in order to reach AOL members with e-mail.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said the effort, which began in late March, has helped it reduce its spam complaints in some instances by 90 percent. "We have been working cooperatively, with a range of broadband providers to mutually identify dynamic IP addresses of their customers not using proper e-mail relays to send AOL members e-mails," he told

"Our job has been to be guided by our members (who complain about the spam) and go after the spammers using e-mail relay servers as their command and control centers."

But as a result, complain critics, residential and especially small businesses that use residential broadband accounts to send e-mails with different addresses than that of their ISPs are blocked out too.

The issue is increasingly pitting commercial ISP providers' anti-spam efforts against online groups who bridle at the notion of large, commercial ISPs taking unilaterial measures to block who can send mail and who can't.

It goes against the codes of conduct about e-mail and networking, said Karsten Self, who demonstrated the blocked header he received when he tried to e-mail an AOL member from his DSL connection.

"AOL is violating a standard of people sending large quantities of mail," said Self, who is active in the free software movement.

He said AOL needs to create more effective filters for the problem, rather than block groups of e-mail senders who use relay channels to send bulk mail.

"It's like they're saying 'we don't want to deal with your kind,'" said Self, who describes himself as active in the free software movement.

"How much further down this path of large ISPs slicing out the 'unwanted' ... before all ISPs will simply stop passing packets past their own networks which do not originate from their servers or a 'registered business partner' of some sort," said another post to a Linux discussion list where the thread originated.

"I think we are on a long slow decline of SMTP ," said another.

Graham said since the program was implemented in late March, AOL has been able to block 90 percent of spam. Now, he said AOL is working with Baby Bell and DSL provider SBC to implement the blocking program on its network as well as other ISPs such as ATTbi.

Graham said individuals who are blocked will get a note about what's happening, telling them they should contact their ISP broadband providers to make appropriate adjustments on their ranges when sending out the e-mails.

"We have worked it out with individuals that may be inadvertently affected," he said. "As long as the broadband users are using normal channels of mail relays of operators, they should have no problem sending e-mail to AOL members," said Graham.

"We have made it clear that we don't accept connections from broadband residential dynamic IP addresses that we have identified as engines of spam."

AOL users: I'm not ignoring you, AOL is blocking legitimate mail

By Karsten M. Self

(30 August 2003) America On Line has adopted several poorly contrived methods of reducing spam. The upshot is that I cannot send or reply to mail from AOL addresses. Unfortunately this includes my own mother (Mom: use the GNU/Linux system I've installed for you, please, and Earthlink). This has been going on since at least March of this year, and affects both systems through which I can generally send email. If you are an AOL user, please raise this issue with technical support, or switch to an alternate ISP.

I'll be adding more on this, with technical information and lists of systems AOL has banned. Note that several suits based on 47 U.S.C. 202 common-carrier violations are in process.

If you are a mail system administrator, consider retaliation by blocking inbound AOL mail with a permanent delivery error (5xx code). See RFC 2821 for a list of delivery status codes.

Similarly, if you are using a dial-up / dynamically assigned IP list as part of your spam filtering toolkit, please configure your system to make a positive result a weighted, advisory component of your spam filtering score, not an outright block.



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