AOL wary of Comcast, Road Runner mail

America Online starts blocking what it deems to be suspicious e-mail sent by customers of Comcast's High-Speed Internet and AOL Time Warner's Road Runner broadband services.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
In its latest attempt to crack down on spam, America Online has started blocking what it deems to be suspicious e-mail sent by customers of Comcast's High-Speed Internet and AOL Time Warner's Road Runner broadband services.

AOL, the interactive arm of AOL Time Warner, began in the last week to reject some e-mail sent by users of those services, according to AOL. AOL and Comcast, in particular, have worked together to identify a range of Internet protocol addresses of Comcast customers who have set up their own mail server to send messages, as opposed to using Comcast's mail servers like most subscribers do.

AOL began censoring messages originating from those IP addresses, stopping designated Comcast subscribers from sending mail to AOL members.

The tactic serves to foil spammers that set up their own mail servers to send millions of unsolicited messages via Comcast's big pipes--a practice that helps better disguise the junk mail. Spammers are increasingly attracted to piggybacking on high-speed pipes to send spam because they can send more, and by using their own mail server, they can bypass the spam-detection measures that ISPs use on mail before it's sent on their networks. However, this antispam tactic can, in some cases, prevent legitimate mailers from contacting friends or colleagues with an AOL address.

"Those customers who are using their own residential mail relays to send e-mail to AOL members have been identified by their dynamically assigned IP addresses as a source of spam by our members, and we have taken action to thwart their illicit activity to protect our members' online experience," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said.

Graham added that legitimate Internet users of AT&T/Comcast will continue to be able to send e-mail to AOL members "as long as they are using the normal channel of mail relays operated by AT&T and/or Comcast to send their e-mails."

Like many other ISPs, AOL has stepped up efforts to squelch spam in recent months as the problem has grown to epic proportions and has easily become the No. 1 nuisance to Web users. According to a December 2002 study by the Gartner Group, as much as 50 percent of all messages in a given corporate in-box are unwanted e-mail--a rate that's sure to grow.

AOL's blocking of rivals' open mail servers is the latest among many other tactics used to fight spam, such as filtering technology and lawsuits against junk mailers. Graham called it the newest "front in the war against spam and spammers." He said complaints from AOL members reached an all-time high recently about the amount of spam coming from Comcast's service and that's when AOL started working with Comcast to block those IP addresses.

Comcast said it fully supports the strategy. "Comcast is cooperating with AOL in its effort to reduce spam," Comcast spokeswoman Sarah Eder said. "We recognize that spam is an issue for all e-mail users, and we're working collectively to combat the problem."

At least one legitimate mailer complained about AOL's move. Nils Puhlmann, a Comcast subscriber, criticized AOL for interfering with small businesses or legitimate e-mail like his own. "For people who have set up a private mail server to send e-mail with a domain name that reflects their family name or their small-home based business, they cannot send one single e-mail to anyone with an @aol.com address," Puhlmann said.

"I am an active proponent of antispam measures and believe that people should be free to choose what services they want to use over their Internet connection," Puhlmann added. "Especially if they pay nearly $50 a month for that. No other Internet access or service provider should have the right to target, block or slow down traffic from competitors by range of IP addresses instead of targeting certain individuals who violate the rules and harm others."

Other antispam advocates said the measure is not uncommon, given that many ISPs share the range of IP addresses that are given to residential accounts and that are unauthorized for use with separate mail servers.

"It is a useful step in that broadband connections of all kinds are favored by spammers because they can use high-speed access to pump out more spam than ever," said Ray Everett-Church, a privacy advocate and Comcast subscriber. "So there's a real incentive to take measures that deny spammers benefit from high-speed access."

"It makes a certain amount of sense that customers who are trying to figure out technology and set up a home server might be a little ticked off. But the downsides of spammers freely using that network far outweigh that inconvenience," Everett-Church said.