AOL: Spam Problem Is Getting Worse

Just two weeks after reporting progress in its war on spam, AOL told e-marketers that spam levels had doubled in the last six months and the AOL Time Warner Internet unit would soon block over a billion unsolicited bulk email messages a day.

AOL’s assistant general counsel, Charles Curran, told attendees at DoubleClick’s Insight conference on Tuesday that spam had reached “staggering levels” that might require further email-blocking measures than have been implemented under AOL’s already stringent policies.

“Unfortunately, I’m here today to report that AOL is facing a spam crisis,” Curran said.

AOL sees fighting spam, which ranks as its No. 1 customer complaint, as key to fulfilling its mission of being responsive to its 27 million members concerns. This member-centric focus, which was reiterated by AOL’s new chief Jonathan Miller, has led AOL to let its members determine what is spam. With its AOL 8.0 software, which rolled out in October, the ISP included a “report spam” button to allow users to easily flag emails that have gotten through its server-side anti-spam defenses.

Members have taken to using the button liberally, with AOL receiving 4 million reports a day. While AOL uses the level of reports as a guide to investigating spammers, some email marketers have worried about getting mislabeled as spammers by customers using the button as an “unsubscribe” mechanism.

Curran addressed those concerns by warning email marketers that AOL would be guided by its members’ reports when determining how email marketers are living up to the ISPs email standards.

“AOL uses member complaints to distinguish between mail senders with strong email practices from poor performers,” he said. “When there’s a problem, we need to act to address our members’ concerns.”

AOL maintains a white list of email marketers that conform to its email standards. However, Curran said a large number of complaints are received over messages sent by white-listed companies.

Curran warned that the problem might force AOL to take more aggressive actions, including a mechanism that would benchmark the performance of email marketing companies against each other to develop baseline standards.

In addition, he said the company was looking to improve the technology it uses to track individual senders. Also, Curran said the company would continue to take legal action against spammers using illegal methods, such as faked email headers.

The cornerstone of the company’s policy, however, will remain member feedback.

“We really do take what the members report to us very seriously,” he said. “We hope that you will too.”

To help educate marketers about AOL’s email policies, the company earlier this week set up a new Web site, postmaster.info.aol.com.

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