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Blacklists for Spam Control? Bad Idea

Subscribers to my weekly newsletter are aware of my concerns about the increasing number of blacklists Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are using in a misguided attempt to protect you from spam. It's a huge problem and left unchecked, could destroy e-mail the effectiveness of e-mail as we know it today.

As a result of blacklists, legitimate e-mail is being blocked and thereby prevented from getting to its destination. This occurs because the system from which the blocked e-mail originates has the same unique Internet Protocol (IP) address as an identified source of spam. This is precisely what's happening with many newsletters, mine included on occasion.

All newsletters use a mail distribution service to ensure delivery. I currently use a service called ValueWeb. ValueWeb is as vehemently anti-spam as I am, but from time to time, as happens to all mail distribution services, they are duped by spammers. Spammers will open an account, send a one-time blast of spam, then disappear into the night.

What then happens is exactly as I mentioned above: Because some small quantity of spam may have emanated from a mail distribution service that has absolutely nothing to do with me or any other individual, that service can then wind up on a third-party blacklist used by your ISP. The result: You won't receive e-mail that you not only want, but are entitled to receive.

Therein lies the danger of permitting ISPs to decide what mail you receive. ISPs exist to provide Internet access, not to act as your mail filter, yet some ISPs have taken it upon themselves -- without your permission -- to filter your e-mail. It's a terrible practice and it's as inappropriate as the U.S. Postal Service making arbitrary decisions about what snail mail you should receive or not. Such a practice would not be tolerated if it involved U.S. Mail, yet many e-mail users passively permit ISPs to make those same decisions as it relates to their e-mail. It's not only a huge mistake, it's an extremely dangerous precedent to establish.

Some blacklists are so poorly constructed that anybody who says, "I received spam from XYZ" can place another individual or commercial enterprise on a blacklist simply by lodging a complaint. There's no investigation, no corroboration. That's how loosey-goosey the whole "e-mail blacklist" industry is.

If you think that large, highly-respected ISPs are impervious to this phenomenon, think again. Earthlink recently issued an apology to people who attempted to e-mail Earthlink users. The apology, in part, stated, "Recently, Earthlink's mail servers erroneously refused mail from many hosts across the Internet. This problem happened due to the way our mail server software loaded data used to block spam destined for our members.

The error message senders received is normally intended for mail servers that Earthlink has blocked in order to protect our subscribers from unwanted commercial e-mail. If you are still not receiving e-mail from certain individuals, then the sender's host has been blocked and you are asked to please reply to this mail or contact for assistance in being unblocked. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this problem created."

Earthlink isn't the only ISP whose users are being affected: AOL, Roadrunner, CompuServe and many other ISP subscribers are not receiving legitimate e-mail. And if that's not bad enough, the attitude of some ISPs who are knowingly blocking legitimate mail is, "We don't care."

Some (AOL included) deny blocking e-mail; others believe they're providing a service to users by blocking spam, never acknowledging that they are also blocking legitimate mail -- in some cases, important e-mail, business and personal communications that never arrive. The more aggressive the "spam filtering," the less reliable e-mail as a communications vehicle will become. And therein lies the problem.

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While some believe that blacklists are the problem, others believe the culprits to be ISPs and hosting companies that don't crack down on spammers operating within their domains. I agree. ISPs and mail distribution services need to be more vigilant and focus their attentions on stopping the bad guys, not setting up filters that block our legitimate e-mail. We're not the problem.

Regardless of who's at fault for innocent e-mails getting trapped in the spam dragnet, one thing is clear: the system of blacklists is achieving the opposite of its intended effect -- to promote the free flow of legitimate e-mail that's unencumbered by the negative effects of unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Fortunately, a backlash is gaining momentum. Many users have called for an end to blacklists, saying they'd rather put up with the spam if it means that the e-mail that they need to send and receive will find its way to the intended recipients.

The solution to this problem is not that difficult: As e-mail users we need to take responsibility for our own e-mail. The ability to block e-mail should be a user-based decision, not a third-party, ISP-based decision. Legitimate e-mail will be blocked whenever somebody other than the recipient makes decisions about what will or will not be received.

At a minimum, if ISPs want to provide e-mail filtering services, each user must have the ability to create his or her own "whitelist" -- e-mail they WANT to receive and that will not be blocked by a blacklist. An ISP could offer recommended filters, for example, but each user must have the ability to accept or reject mail from specific sources.

A solution to the spam problem lies in a combination of technology, user involvement, legislation, and common sense.

The future of e-mail depends on our willingness to get involved and let our ISPs know that we will not accept unilateral e-mail filtering based on the decision of others. As it relates to your e-mail, you are the most appropriate person to decide what you do or do not wish to receive. Don't give up that decision-making ability to others. The long-term viability of e-mail depends on it.

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