Hotmail criticized over spam filter woes

Two weeks after Hotmail implements a controversial junk email filter, users complain that the flow of "spam" to their in-boxes continues.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
4 min read
Two weeks after Hotmail implemented a controversial junk-email filter, users are complaining that the flow of "spam" to their in-boxes has not slowed.

In addition, some Internet business owners contend that Microsoft has aligned itself with the online equivalent of "vigilante militants."

Microsoft's Hotmail, a free Web-based email service, last week said it had subscribed to the Mail Abuse Prevention System's (MAPS) Realtime Blackhole List (RBL). The list filters email coming from servers known to be conduits for unsolicited commercial email, or spam.

The MAPS blacklist is one of several to have gained notoriety on the Internet. Supporters hail them as powerful tools against spammers and server administrators who leave their computers vulnerable to use by spammers. Detractors tend to be businesses that have wound up on these lists, often, they say, without having been warned that they had fallen afoul of what MAPS considers responsible email policies.

Whatever MAPS' reputation, Hotmail users are questioning the effect of its list after two weeks of apparently unabated spam intake.

"I haven't noticed any decrease in the amount of spam landing in my in-box," wrote one Hotmail user in an email, representative of many solicited and unsolicited emails received by CNET News.com. "In fact, it's jumped from 11 per day (average) to 16 per day in November. High so far was 33 in one day. Catch so far for the month: 281 spams, 1.2MB of space consumed. That's over half my allotted space."

Others bolstered the claim that Hotmail's spam problem is not going away, and that it may even be increasing.

"I have received double if not triple the amount of spam email in the past two weeks," wrote another Hotmail user. "Many of the messages are duplicates sent on sequential days. I use my Hotmail account often, but the spam messages are a real annoyance."

Microsoft countered that by implementing the RBL, Hotmail has reduced spam by thousands of emails a day, but the company declined to disclose more exact figures.

MAPS did not return several phone calls and email inquiries today or yesterday seeking comment.

While users gripe that Hotmail's implementation of the RBL has had little effect on their spam intake, some businesses and advocacy groups are voicing concerns that Hotmail has aligned itself with what they term a "vigilante" group exercising inappropriate and possibly illegal control over Internet communications and business transactions.

"My concern about all of the self-appointed vigilante anti-spam groups is that they're sloppy," said Dave McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals (AOP), an Internet trade association. "I do sympathize with people trying to fight the problem of unsolicited commercial email, which is a problem that the industry is going to have to find a solution to. But vigilante law is not a good solution."

Three different businesses backed up McClure's concern about the administration of the email blacklists. Web hosting company Digital Aquarius and marketing firm BBS Press Service said they had been blacklisted without first having been warned by MAPS. MAPS promises warn each offender with two email notifications and one phone call.

Another company, which asked not to be identified, said it lost thousands of dollars after MAPS blacklisted its credit card processor after another one of that company's clients was suspected of facilitating spam relay.

All three complained that MAPS did not respond in a timely fashion to their complaints about being put on the list.

"They have had numerous complaints over the years," McClure said. "I don't think it will be long before we see these services legally challenged on business interference or unfair restraint-of-trade grounds."

Although MAPS was not available to comment for this story, MAPS ally the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) said MAPS welcomed a legal challenge.

"MAPS wants to get sued to establish that this is a legal boycott method," said CAUCE founder John Mozena. "The threat of a lawsuit is not going to stop them."

Mozena said MAPS had its share of critics who thought it was too lax with suspected spammers.

"There are plenty of people in the anti-spam community who think that the RBL doesn't go anywhere near far enough," said Mozena. "The more militant people in the anti-spam community think RBL is too nice to people. But while they might not be perfect, the reason they're so widely implemented is that by and large people trust their methodology."

Mozena said MAPS has acknowledged it needs to improve its response time in addressing complaints. He said the all-volunteer group was considering a number of funding schemes that would let them hire full-time employees to respond to complaints of those who think they were mistakenly put on the RBL.

"This may be a question of growing pains more than anything else," Mozena said.

Funding methods under consideration by MAPS include charging for a more advanced version of the service called RBL+. Another idea is to charge for consulting services for email administrators.