educational

AOL and Porn Blocking

Alex Henderson
In the technology field, a term that has become increasingly popular in recent months is "false positive," which refers to a legitimate email that has been wrongly identified as spam by a spam filter and is blocked.

Some spam filters are operated by an ISP customer who has the option of deciding whether he/she wants low, medium or high filtering or no filtering at all; a higher level of filtering is more likely to result in false positives, while a low level of filtering may result in fewer false positives but more spam reaching an inbox. But some types of spam filtering are outside an ISP customer's control. The ISP itself might decide that a company is a spammer, block a company's domain and prevent the ISP's customers from receiving any email from that company — even if the ISP customer is not using any spam filtering software and wants to receive email from that company. It is that type of false positive — ISPs preventing their customers from receiving email — that has some people in and outside the adult entertainment industry concerned.

Angela Carson, head of public and investor relations for the Barcelona, Spain-based Private Media Group, the largest adult entertainment company in Europe, told XBIZ that Private became the victim of a major false-positive situation in early June when Private's emails to America Online users were being bounced back.

AOL, according to Carson, had misidentified Private as a spammer and blocked the publicly traded company's domain from reaching AOL addresses. Carson said that Pedro Mayor, Private's information technology director, contacted AOL in an effort to resolve the problem. Mayor told the ISP that Private was not spamming anyone and that any email being sent to AOL users from the Private.com domain was email they wanted to receive. But as of late July, the problem persisted, and people with AOL addresses were still unable to receive any email from Private. Carson noted that 5.5 percent of Private's customers use AOL.

Blocking is 'Crazy'
"The fact that AOL can arbitrarily block AOL users from receiving any email from Private without the users' permission is crazy," Carson said.

"Anything that comes from Private.com is business correspondence. We send out newsletters but only to people who want to receive them. We're very anti-spam."

On several occasions in June and July, XBIZ tested the problem by emailing Carson and others at the Private.com domain using an AOL address; when various Private employees (including Carson) responded to those queries, all of the emails that Private employees sent to that AOL address were bounced back to Private. Unable to receive any emails from Private at that AOL address, XBIZ corresponded with Private using a Verizon email address; when XBIZ attempted to forward Private's emails from that Verizon address to the AOL address, all of them were bounced back to the Verizon address.

"I'm concerned about how this problem with AOL is affecting our sales and our business," Carson said. "When someone signs up for Private's newsletter and it doesn't arrive, how does that look for us? It's very unsettling to think that Private customers who have AOL addresses can't receive a confirmation from us when they place an order because they can't receive email from us. AOL users should be able to communicate with businesses that they want to communicate with."

Private is not the only entity that has been the victim of an ISP's false positive; in April, many AOL customers were temporarily unable to receive email from Google's Gmail users when AOL, according to the Wall Street Journal, held up messages from some Gmail servers over concerns that they might be spam.

Even the liberal nonprofit organization MoveOn.org has noted that some of its emails to AOL users (who had signed up for MoveOn.org's mailing list) have been misidentified as spam and blocked.

Danny O'Brien, activism coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has been outspoken against what he sees as clumsy and careless spam filtering on the part of some ISPs. On the EFF's website, O'Brien is quoted as saying that ISPs like AOL are "silently banning huge swathes of legitimate mail on the flimsiest of reasons." And the EFF has been highly critical of AOL's decision to use GoodMail's Certified Email program. Under that anti-spam program, organizations that pay AOL a fee can have their email certified as nonspam by GoodMail and will be able to bypass AOL's spam filters. AOL has likened Certified Email to an electronic equivalent of paying more money to send a package via registered mail, but DearAOL — a coalition of more than 50 groups that includes the EFF, MoveOn.org and the Gun Owners of America — has denounced AOL's decision to use Certified Email as an "email tax" and "a threat to the free and open Internet."

Users Should Control
Layne Winklebleck, legislative affairs associate for the Free Speech Coalition, said he is very much in favor of spam filtering as long as it is done carefully. But he stressed that email users should be the ones ultimately controlling the spam filtering process, not the ISPs, and he is worried about legitimate, non-spamming businesses being misidentified as spammers by ISPs.

"Spam filtering is fine, but it needs to be left up to the ISP user," Winklebleck told XBIZ. "The ISP customers should be able to decide for themselves what level of spam filtering they want; the ISPs should not block companies without the customers' permission. Spam filtering needs to be controlled by the consumer; there shouldn't be filtering that the ISP user has no control over. The decision has to be made by the consumer, not the ISP."

Winklebleck, a former AOL user, noted that bulk email, even if it is solicited, might trigger the AOL system. Winklebleck cited InReach, one of the ISPs he currently uses, as an example of an ISP that has what appears to be a generally good spam filtering system — good because the ISP user has more say in the filtering process.

Winklebleck said that with InReach, he sets the level of filtering that he wants, and if InReach's system identifies something as possible spam, it is quarantined and placed in a spam folder Winklebleck has the option of reviewing.

If there is a false positive, he can "white list" the sender as a non-spammer and make sure that subsequent emails from that sender are delivered to his inbox. If the sender is, in fact, a spammer, he can blacklist the sender and make sure that subsequent emails are kept out of his inbox.

Winklebleck emphasized that in that scenario, he is ultimately deciding whether he will white list or blacklist an email sender. But if he learned that one of the ISPs he uses was doing the blacklisting and was blocking all of a company's emails without giving him any say in whether or not he wanted to receive those emails, that ISP would lose him as a customer.

Winklebleck explained that in the 1990s, rogue adult webmasters did a considerable amount of spamming, and those spammers did their industry a huge disservice by bombarding email users with sexually explicit emails that they had not asked to receive.

But he was quick to add that reputable adult entertainment companies are gladly adhering to a firm anti-spam policy. The vast majority of adult companies, he noted, have been complying with the Can-Spam Act of 2003, which stands for controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing.

Adult Spam Slowing
"The total amount of spam coming from the adult industry has been going down, and most of the spam has been coming from the fake health companies and others outside the adult industry," Winklebleck said.

Private's Carson emphasized that while she is very much in favor of the continuing war on spam, businesses and ISP users need to be concerned about how that war is being fought; anti-spam efforts, she said, must not harm legitimate companies. Combating the spam menace and avoiding false positives are not mutually exclusive, she stressed, adding that good, well-constructed spam filtering software programs are much better for email users than reckless domain blocking on the part of ISPs.

For example, Carson noted that she and other Private employees swear by Cloudmark's SpamNet software, which she pointed to as an example of a smart spam-filtering program that keeps false positives to a minimum.

"The amount of spam sent to Private is insane, and there are fantastic companies like Cloudmark that go in and really reduce the amount of spam in our inboxes," she explained. "But using Cloudmark is our choice, and that is very different from your ISP deciding what companies you can receive email from. When your ISP won't deliver email that you want to receive, that is censorship on a mass level."

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