AOL Reports Drops in Both E-Mail and Spam Volume

Flying in the face of a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, as well as reports from other industry sources, America Online Friday said its members submitted fewer complaints about spam over the past month. The ISP also says 27 percent less email was sent to addresses over the same period.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham attributes both drops to more aggressive filtering, as well as the company’s litigation efforts such as the lawsuit AOL filed with the three other major U.S. ISPs on March 10.

But the company is also taking measures to control spam that many may find controversial, including restricting member access to sites run by spammers; and by locking down accounts that generate spam — even when this occurs without the subscriber knowledge.

“Because we are filtering better and because we are doing a much better job on behalf of our members at the gateway, spammers are throwing up their hands and saying, ‘I give up,'” Graham speculated. “Spammers are essentially putting themselves on a spam diet because they are not seeing anything positive coming from their efforts whatsoever.”

Under pressure from subscribers irate over spam, ISPs are pursuing a variety of methods to combat it — and trumpeting these efforts loudly to assure their subscribers they’re on the case.

AOL routinely blocks and deletes around 75 percent of incoming email it identifies as spam. It says this percentage didn’t increase over the last month. Of the email it lets pass, some directs to the inbox, and more suspicious mail to a spam folder where members can inspect it for themselves.

From Feb. 20th to March 17, total mail sent to AOL members dropped 27 percent, from 2.6 billion to 1.9 billion. Over the same period, AOL delivered 37 percent fewer emails to spam folders, from 178 million to 113 million. Member spam complaints dropped by 47 percent, from 12.4 million to 6.8 million.

E-Mail and Spam on AOL
Date E-Mail Attempts Blocking (Approx.) Delivered to
Spam Folder
Feb. 20 2.6 billion 2 billion 178 million 12.7 million
March 1 2.35 billion 1.8 billion 161 million 12.4 million
March 10 1.9 billion 1.4 billion 90 million 7.2 million
March 17 1.9 billion 1.4 billion 113 million 6.8 million
Source: AOL

By tracking complaints and email volume, AOL has been determining what PCs and servers on broadband networks are infected with viruses such as MyDoom, says Graham. AOL then traces the high volumes of complaints members send in about these machines and temporarily blocks email from those sender IP addresses. The company also tracks member complaints and uses them to improve AOL’s ability to limit their online members’ access to sites identified as belonging to spammers, Graham says.

When asked if AOL’s right to block member access to Web sites was questionable, Graham responded, “We are acting on behalf of our members to prevent them from being sent to fraudulent Web sites, and our actions are based on requests that we’ve gotten from AOL members. We are talking about large volumes of complaints, hundreds and hundreds of thousands. Frankly, a million members can’t be wrong.”

The company is also restricting member accounts that generate spam. “We have implemented some improved monitoring and enforcement on our own customers, especially on AOL Netscape and standalone Outlook clients, to further decrease spam to AOL members,” Graham said. When a large volume of mail combined with a large number of complaints occurs, the accounts are secured and locked down to prevent abuse.

“By decreasing the amount of spam coming from NetCenter we’re decreasing the amount of spam going to AOL members,” Graham said.

The push is similar to the one broadband ISP Comcast has been making in recent weeks. The provider is telling customers to install virus-scanning and firewall software or risk losing their high-speed connection until their computer’s virus infections are fixed.

“Most customers who send spam do so unknowingly,” Comcast spokeswoman Jeanne Russo said in a prepared statement.

Graham said AOL hadn’t determined what specific types of spam had decreased. Individuals surveyed in the Pew study said the amount of spam they received had risen, but 25 percent reported pornographic spam had declined.

AOL dismissed questions about whether more aggressive filtering could result in more false positives, in which legitimate opt-in email was identified as spam.

“Everything that we’re doing is good for the marketing community because it will increase the amount of good, wanted, desired, commercial email that our members want to get while decreasing the amount of junk that’s in there,” said Graham.

A recent study by email deliverability firm Return Path found that AOL blocked approximately 23 percent of legitimate opt-in email in the second half of 2003, down slightly from the 25 percent it blocked in the first half of the year.

Colin Haley, editor at, contributed to this report.

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