Opinion: More e-mail scandal

I wrote recently that nearly one in eight e-mail lists that a researcher signed up for never reached his inbox. The messages were diverted to a junk folder or never delivered at all, due to crude filters that ISPs are using to try to reduce UBE (unsolicited bulk e-mail).

I asked Windows users to help me find other, larger surveys. One reader cited publisher Al Bredenberg, who tested a community-based filtering service. He found that each week it incorrectly trashes 50 periodicals he'd signed up for. That includes such legitimate, opt-in e-zines as CNN Breaking News, the Motley Fool's Foolwatch, and the comical Daily Dilbert (www.imakenews.com/emailresults/e_article000084040.cfm).

Such filters can be wildly inaccurate because they invite end-users to click a Mark As Spam button. Unfortunately, users have been taught never to click Unsubscribe or "you'll get more spam." This is false -- spammers use 1-pixel images to log who views each message. But filtering services don't offer users a Mark As No Longer Wanted button. So opt-in publications are labeled spam.

Now a remarkable study shows how serious the Internet breakdown has become. Researchers used nine different e-mail clients to request newsletters from 125 large corporations. They found that one in four of the sent messages were shunted as junk by Hotmail and Yahoo (www.silverpop.com/downloads/documents/SpopStudy_TheBrokenLink.pdf). Too bad if you rely on e-mail for important business communications.

I'm sympathetic to people who seek filters. They're desperate for a way to stop the flood of spam. But there are tools, and there are traps.

IronPort.com, which sells e-mail gateways, has announced a scheme in which opt-in publishers pay a deposit of US$100,000. If 30 recipients per 1 million messages say it's spam (a complaint rate of 0.00003), a fine of $1,000 of the deposit per complaint would be given to nonprofits. Since users mark everything as spam, this is crazy.

Another company, Habeas.com, aims to charge opt-in senders as much as 1 cent per message.

These misguided souls presume that the good guys, who've never sent spam, should pay a tax, while spammers pay nothing and keep profiting.

America Online Inc., Yahoo Inc., and other hosts, to their credit, have white lists for legitimate, nonspamming businesses. Getting on these lists is free, as it should be. Spammers won't even apply.

To help end spam, which is quintupling annually, Congress should ban UBE, as it did with junk faxes. But if that doesn't happen, I predict that every major e-mail client will soon deny all e-mail, except from people on your individual white list. To make the list, others must reply appropriately to a greeting, something robots can't do.

Filters, deposits, and blocklists will become history. E-mail will revert to personal contact like instant messaging with its defined buddy lists. No more easy, automated bulk sending. Oh, well.

Nice idea, e-mail. Too bad it choked to death.

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