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Spam nets catching innocents

Spam filters, while stopping some annoying junk email, are having the unintended effect of keeping some users from being able to communicate with others.

In a way, Marguerite Bader can now empathize with dolphins that inadvertently get snagged in drift nets meant for tuna. Fishermen don't intend to catch anything but tuna, but that doesn't make the dolphins feel any better.

The drift net Bader was caught in, so to speak, was set up by an Internet service provider, and its metaphorical prey was closer to ham than fish. The net is for spammers, those increasingly ubiquitous purveyors of unsolicited junk email on the Web.

Online occurrences like Bader's are no longer the exception. In fact, as spam escalates exponentially, ISPs are scrambling for effective weapons to stop it from reaching and alienating their customers and to prevent it from clogging up their systems.

Following the lead of America Online (AOL), more and more ISPs, as well as free email services, are installing filters on their systems that stop email sent by known spammers from reaching their customers.

While most Netizens applaud their efforts, not everyone likes the results. The filters, while stopping at least some annoying junk mail, are having the unintended effect of keeping some users from being able to communicate with their friends and family.

For Bader, it started out a few weeks ago when she tried sending a message to her sister, who uses a small ISP in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bader's message was returned to her. This happened again, again, and again.

Bader's Net provider, MCI Internet, apparently was being filtered by her sister's ISP, an executive there told her through email. According to the email, MCI had been identified as a source of spammers so the small ISP filtered the whole domain.

"It was very frustrating," Bader said. "If I could get my hand on the postmaster, I'd strangle him, but I couldn't even send him a message."

Through the efforts of Bader and her brother-in-law, the filter was eventually removed. In fact, MCI insists that it has a very strict policy against spammers, and those on the forefront in the battle against spamming agree.

But whether MCI actually started spamming may not have made a difference. All it took was the perception that the Net service carried spam.

As ISPs--especially smaller ones that don't have the resources to carefully monitor the Net for spam--get more and more desperate to block junk mail, they rely on lists of known spammers that come from newsgroups and email lists.

Getting on a filter list is not unusual these days, so it's not surprising to those who follow the issue to find a popular ISP on the list. In fact, ISPs put each other on the filter lists to pressure each other to stop spam, according Randy Delucchi, customer service director of Hotmail a free Web-based email service, which falls on both side of the issue.

Hotmail maintains its own filter, blocking out what it considers to be known spammers, and it also has, on occasion, ended up on someone else's filter list. "We really feel we're getting hit on both ends of it," Delucchi said.

In addition, the free email service will place ISPs on the filter list "to get them to be responsive." In other words, an ISP that hosts a known spammer will soon find itself blocked by several sites.

Of course, mistakes are made. Even when they're not--when domains notorious for hosting spammers are put on filter lists--innocent people find their messages are being blocked.

That's what worries Alan Crawley, Bader's brother-in-law. Crawley, who works for a software developer and has been on the Net since 1981, said he understands the problem and sympathizes with ISPs trying to resolve it. But he worries that in their fervor to control junk email, they're hurting unwitting users.

"I'm an antispamming kind of guy," he said. "But I discovered a whole new aspect of this that probably should be illegal." Crawley worries that ISPs could end up on lists for any number of reasons, some of which could be arbitrary. He said AOL's PreferredMail filter is different because it allows the user to turn it off.

"If I were an ISP and one of my clients complained about spam, I would block that address, not the whole domain," Crawley added. "That's like the phone company saying it got a dirty phone call from area code 206, so it's going to block all calls from area code 206."

Ron Guilmette, a developer of antispam software for E-Scrub Technologies based on filtering, agreed. In fact, he said these incidents only emphasize the need for professionals to seek out spammers and create master lists.

That would prevent a lot of unintended victims, he added. But sometimes even companies that are careful wind up snagging a few innocent victims, especially when they find a domain hosting so many spammers that they simply block the whole domain.

"It is definitely the case that some innocent parties will occasionally be unable to send email to places they want to send it," Guilmette said. "We are trying to turn spam fighting from an amateur level to a professional service. It is a problem. It's getting worse and worse. This is one of the major things that started me against spam."