EarthLink to Roll Out Challenge-Response, Rich Media Blocker

EarthLink said it will roll out its challenge-response email option for users next week and will debut rich media-blocking capabilities early next month. Both products will be free to its 5 million subscribers.

The Atlanta-based Internet service provider painted both optional tools as part of its crusade to eliminate the annoyances of the Internet experience like spam, pop-ups and rich media ads.

The challenge-response email system will buff up its Spaminator technology that it began offering to users last August. It works by automatically assuming an email sender is suspect, only letting through mail from senders either in the user’s address book or with whom he has previously corresponded. Unknown senders are “challenged” to prove they are not spammers through an email that requires them to respond with a word or the description of an image before the email is delivered. Suspect mail is diverted to a separate folder, which the user can check occasionally for mistakenly filtered messages.

“We’re coming out with a technology that we think will give customers a way of taking back control of their in-boxes,” said EarthLink’s vice president of product development, Jim Anderson. “Customers need some way of controlling the spam problem now, not two years from now.”

EarthLink estimates nearly 60 percent of the email sent to its subscribers is spam.

The system is already the subject of a lawsuit by Mailblocks, a Los Altos, Calif.-based Internet email company that debuted a very similar product in March. In asuit filed two weeks ago, Mailblocks claims EarthLink’s challenge-response system violates its patent on the technology. EarthLink said would fight any legal challenge to its system.

Anderson admitted the system is flawed in that it would almost certainly block wanted email from time to time. For example, he said a user looking for a job might want to turn off the tool to keep potential employers from having to go through a verification process.

“The majority of people you communicate with are in your address book,” he said. “There are some scenarios where you wouldn’t want this on. You don’t have to use it.”

E-mail marketers, whose messages would be blocked unless they were specifically added to a trusted-sender list, expressed doubts the system would succeed.

“Implemented incorrectly they’re going to have a problem and we’re going to have a problem,” said Anna Zornosa, chief executive of Topica, a San Francisco-based email marketing provider. “It’s not a perfect solution to put the onus on the recipient and the list owner.”

Michael Della Penna, chief marketing officer at New York-based email marketing company Bigfoot Interactive, said adoption of challenge-response systems would be low, due to the liklihood of false postiives and the possibility that it would entail more work than simply hitting the delete key.

“We believe that only a very small portion [of EarthLink customers] will go through the effort of setting it up,” he said.

The rich media blocker, available beginning June 4, will disable Macromedia’s Flash, a common technology used in most rich media advertising, from appearing on users screens. Anderson said rich media ads, in many cases, are no better than the scourge of pop-ups, which EarthLink has targeted.

“Our position is fairly simple: We’re offering users the ability to block” rich media, he said.

In doing so, EarthLink users visiting sites with Flash ads would see their static alternatives or a blank space, according to EarthLink. DoubleClick’s recent ad-serving trends report reported that 28 percent of the ads it served in the first quarter were rich media. If current adoption trends hold, DoubleClick estimates 40 percent of all Internet ads will be rich media by the year’s end. And Flash dominates rich media, with Macromedia reporting more than half a billion Flash player downloads worldwide and 98 percent penetration.

Anderson dismissed the notion that such a product would directly threaten Internet publishers and advertisers who depend on rich media ads as branding units for traditional advertisers. DoubleClick reported that rich media ads garnered an almost 50 percent high post-impression sales activity than non-rich media.

“We’re not opposed to advertising or Internet advertising,” he said. “We’re in the business of serving our customers.”

Some in the rich media community said the product with have little effect, since Flash is used in Web design even for mundane functions like navigation.

“Anyone with an Internet browser can turn off all graphics,” said Bill McCloskey, the head of the Macromedia Flash Advertising Alliance. “I really don’t see it having much of an effect.”

EarthLink has garnered a bevy of attention for its anti-spam efforts, including a recent $16 million judgment against Howard Carmack, the so-called “Buffalo Spammer.” New York’s attorney general, Elliot Spitzer, later credited EarthLink with aiding the investigation of Carmack that led to his arrest two weeks ago.

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