AOL Denies Censoring DearAOL

AOL has predictably denied blocking emails that mentioned DearAOL.com. Instead, they have described it under the handy bugbear of being a “software glitch” that affected “over 50 sites with no commonality.” A list of the sites affected was not released, so, you know, we’ll just have to take their word for it.

We don’t buy it. When any mentions of a specific domain critical of the company scanning the email results in a bounced email, that’s not a “software glitch.” That doesn’t happen in software glitches; that only happens when a domain wildcard has been deliberately entered into the spam guard filters. Since DearAOL wasn’t sending out spam, it seems that this was done specifically to censor dissenting opinions from reaching AOL’s users.

There’s something rather intriguing about this incident. More and more, we trust ISPs to filter for spam, checking all of our incoming communications and scanning them to see whether or not they are “appropriate.” But this puts a lot of trust in the hands of private companies not to add their own parameters to spam guard filters. It also raises questions on whether we’re comfortable with major corporations analyzing our personal and business communications on a minute level.

Personally, we’re a lot more comfortable with client-side spam filtering; even without AOL’s attempts at using spam guards to censor, ISPs always seem to muck it up. But what about you guys? Are you concerned by the companies analyzing your emails on a server-side level? Or do you think it’s not a big deal? Let us know in the comments.

AOL Denies Blocking Critics [Internet News]
Previously: AOL Blocks DearAOL Emails

Comments

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  1. Felix says:

    I couldn’t live without Gmail’s server-side spam filtering. My email address is all over the internet, and I get insane amounts of spam. So all my email is actually forwarded to a Gmail account which then forwards it back to a “secret” account at my domain name. And thanks to the way Gmail is set up, filters out the spam at the same time. Then I have a client-side spam filter on top of Gmail, but that one is much less good on its own. Between the two of them, my spam load is manageable.

  2. Jay Levitt says:

    “only happens when a domain wildcard has been deliberately entered into the spam guard filters.”

    Um, actually, no. AOL has long had a system that will detect when an URL is suddenly being sent around in high volumes of e-mail, and that’s usually a good indicator that the message is spam.

    Think about it – spammers can disguise the message in a billion ways, with synonyms, misspellings, etc. But there’s one thing that ALL spam has to do, and that’s get you to click on the link. So the link has to be there.

    That gets combined with a zillion other spamminess factors – complaint rates by recipients, known spam sources, etc. – and automatically rated. When you’re dealing with several billion spams a day, there’s not a lot of time for deliberately entering URLs into a filter – and, given how easy it is to register domains, not a lot of point. URLs come and go. It’s gotta be automated.

  3. JAFO says:

    Yahoo Mail has a great SPAM solution. They dump any mail their filter considers SPAM into a folder called “Bulk Mail” and you can check it or not as you choose. The folder also has an automatic delete function to keep it from getting out of hand. None of my mail is kept from me, but I don’t have to see the SPAM either.

  4. Mary Marsala With Fries says:

    Whether AOL is guilty or not, there’s a lot to be said for being nervous about any for-profit (or politically-motivated, or both) entity “managing” the email of private citizens. That’s rather like asking the post office (or some corporation) to look through your mail and see to it that you don’t get the junk mail. I can see asking a trusted friend or associate to do that, but surely not an entity with virtually no accountability in the process. Personally, I’m okay with Gmail doing it, because the messages aren’t actually gone, and I’m technically literate and I can and do check my “spam” folder regularly to make sure that nothing untoward got skimmed. Most people wouldn’t.

    I would have to argue that companies who “filter” mail should face rather severe fines and /or other punishments if they’re found to be doing it inappropriately…but first, perhaps, we need to give email the kind of legitimacy as a form of communication that it deserves.

    -M.

  5. Paul D says:

    I couldn’t live without Gmail’s server-side spam filtering.

    I call shenanigans. I’ve had too many legit emails get flagged as spam by Gmail’s filter. And clicking “not spam” does nothing. The system doesn’t learn.

    The only thing you can do to avoid spam is to simply not give your damn email address to every tom/dick/harry website out there. I’ve said this to my parents hundreds of times, yet every time they set up a new email address the spam just starts rolling in.

    I get MAYBE 1 spam message a month. MAYBE.

    Quoth HAL: “It must be attributable…to human error.”

  6. Morgan says:

    It’s interesting that Gmail’s spam filter hasn’t worked for you, Paul; it works great for me. There were a few things marked as spam that weren’t early on, I hit not spam, and those sources were never blocked again- and I do check my spam folder every two weeks or so, so I know it’s not letting anything through. And the only thing spam like that does come through are things I actually signed up for- deals from Amazon and Buy.com that I skim when I’m looking for something particular.
    Of course, it might not work as well if I gave my e-mail address out like your parents seem to. I recommend everyone get a free account and only use it to sign up for things likely to generate spam so you can keep your normal address for things that are important to you.

  7. Jay Levitt says:

    Mary – interesting point. AOL has largely shied away from the “filtered but not deleted” model because of the huge costs involved in processing and storing an extra two billion messages a day that most people most of the time won’t read. When I worked there five years ago, we considered implementing a spam folder with extra-strong filtering, but at the time we couldn’t come up with any categories of mail that were “probably” spam; mail we received was either near-100%-definitely spam, or it wasn’t. (Our goal was “zero false positives”, and any time we saw a single non-spam message get eaten by a rule, that rule got disabled.)

    But times have changed, and it’ll be interesting to see if GMail’s growing popularity will force them to swallow that as a cost of doing business.

    Paul – On AOL, at least, even keeping your address secret is no panacea. Spammers are constantly running “dictionary attacks” – that is, they make up every possible 16-character screen name, and try sending spam to it. If it goes through, great, if not, they don’t care. Combine that with the fact that someone else may have had your screen name before you, and you’re just never safe from spammers.