Mailblocks antispam service promises end to spam

A new antispam service initially aimed at consumers launched Monday with two huge promises to users: a total end to annoying spam and no false positives to hang up wanted e-mail.

Begun by Phil Goldman, a former Microsoft vice president and a co-founder of WebTV Networks Inc., the new Mailblocks Inc. service forgoes common spam-prevention filtering methods, such as heuristics and blacklisting, with something called "challenged response." Similar to other methods where the protected user’s e-mail account automatically asks the sender to verify an initial e-mail message, the challenged response sends a generated message asking the sender to type in a provided seven-digit number into a box in the e-mail. Since only an authentic sender can type in the number correctly, and a computer-generated spam mailer can’t issue such a response, the e-mail is then perceived to be authentic and added to the recipient’s accepted senders list.

"We’ve turned the problem around," said Goldman, the CEO of Los Altos, Calif.-based Mailblocks. "We’re defeating the spammers’ computers. We’re not allowing them to send spam to you."

The service will cost US$9.95 per year for standard service with 12MB of storage, or $24.95 a year for up to 50MB of storage. Attachments of up to 6MB can be sent with each message. New standard-service subscribers will get two free years of service as a bonus as an incentive with the service’s debut.

The difference between Mailblocks and other response-generated e-mail services, Goldman said, is that other services can be tricked by spammers through the issuance of a Perl script automated response, which isn’t possible using the seven-digit code.

The service can accessed through Mailblocks’ Web page or by using Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express or Eudora e-mail clients.

Other benefits include immediate access to a user’s in-box upon log-in, rather than to ad-filled home pages with free e-mail alternatives, such as Yahoo Mail and Hotmail.

The "challenged response" technology has been patented by Mailblocks, and the company is actively searching for partners to license it and bring its capabilities to enterprise e-mail systems such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes, Goldman said.

Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif., said Goldman's no-spam, no-errors claims are perhaps over the edge. "There's no question, it's a stretch," he said. "But Goldman's learned a lot during his WebTV days" about what customers want and how they want to use e-mail and the Web, Bajarin added.

"While the vision is rather grand, if there's any guy who can design something that can minimize spam, I've got to say that Phil's as good a guy as any," he said.

Even if Goldman's claims are accurate, spammers will likely figure out a way to defeat the seven-digit code system in Mailblocks, Bajarin said. That means Goldman will need to be proactive in staying a step ahead of them with other methods to stop spam.

"His goal is to provide spam-free mail," Bajarin said. "In the cases of Hotmail and these others, that's not their goal."

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