Hotmail Targets Web Beacons

Microsoft on Thursday announced Hotmail users could block HTML images from appearing in email messages, in a move meant to foil spammers trolling for valid email addresses.

Beginning this week, Hotmail users can choose to block HTML images from appearing in email messages from senders not in their contact lists. E-mail users can open the images in unknown messages after seeing the other contents of the message. The technology targets a common technique used by spammers of inserting “Web beacons” in email messages that verify an email address is valid when a message is opened.

“Spam is no longer just an inconvenience for consumers and the online industry,” said Lisa Gurry, MSN’s group product manager. “It has become a major problem, one that makes it hard for people to sort through their personal email and reduces productivity.”

The move to block Web beacons by blocking HTML images worries some email marketers who believe the moves hinder the effectiveness of HTML messages, which boast response rates nearly double that of text messages, according to DoubleClick. Yahoo rolled out the option for its users earlier this year.

Microsoft has already taken steps against Web beacons. The beta version of Outlook 11, its hugely popular email client, includes the ability to block HTML graphics from the preview pane.

“If the objective of adding this feature is to reduce spam, it’s going to fail,” said Al DiGuido, chief executive of email marketing firm Bigfoot Interactive. “We don’t think that any feature in or itself will end the [spam] problem.”

While spammers often use Web beacons to verify addresses, legitimate email marketers use them as an analytics tool, tracking who opened their mailings.

“There are legitimate uses of Web beacons,” said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative’s (NAI) email service provider coalition. “Web beacons are an almost mundane technology.”

Last November, the NAI released a set of guidelines for the use of Web beacons, in the hopes of defusing privacy concerns over the use of such tracking technology.

MSN said its move against Web beacons was one of many techniques it has employed in its quest to cut down on the flood of spam. The company inked a deal with leading anti-spam company Brightmail last September to block spam before it reaches customers’ in-boxes. In another move, Hotmail added technology that detects automated account signups, in an attempt to stop spammers from using the free email service to send spam.

MSN has also recently joined with AOL and Yahoo in an initiative to fight the spam scourge and has filed a number of lawsuits against spammers.

MSN said its approach has begun to bear fruit, with the service now blocking 2.4 billion spam messages a day — a staggering 80 percent of the email it handles. AOL has reported blocking a similar level of spam.

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