Spam and Blacklists

As expected, the spam topic generated some interesting questions, especially regarding blacklists. I’ll dive a little deeper into it, but first an interesting point.

The spam issue looks for answers to very basic questions: What is email for? And, is email marketing an acceptable form of marketing? How you answer colors how you feel about spam and its regulation. Some readers feel their email boxes are not for ads or unsolicited requests, rather solely for personal communication. That may be true with a home email account. In the business world, email plays a huge role, especially when it comes to buying and selling. Spam puts a tremendous damper on how businesses conduct business. Spam inhibits one of the greatest commercial tools to arise in our lifetime.

The Mystique of Blacklists

Blacklists are few in number but very powerful. Blacklists typically contain IP addresses of people and organizations that run open email relays or that are known to send spam.

In an ideal world, blacklists would include the IP addresses used by every spammer. They would use a fair and accountable process to determine if an IP is a true source of spam.

This is unfortunately not the case. Popularly referenced blacklists such as Spam Prevention Early Warning System (SPEWS) and Wirehub seek to interrupt large areas of the Internet where they believe spammers operate to force ISPs to terminate these customers. They locate companies or email service providers (ESPs) with the “potential” to send spam. They then add every IP address in the network block to their blacklists. They do this regardless of whether spam has been sent from those ISPs.

Blacklist servers are often hidden offshore, outside any legal jurisdiction. They also hide their identities so they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Despite the arbitrary and often vindictive nature of blacklists, many corporations trust these organizations to capture the names of actual spam offenders.

Police Without Jurisdiction

Blacklist organizations arose because people became fed up with spam. That we have in common. The problem with blacklists is their ultimate goal — force ISPs to take greater action against spammers by creating broad, unverified IP address lists they believe are capable of sending spam. The thinking is if they create enough havoc for ISPs, they’ll force spammers out of the picture.

The havoc extends beyond the ISP. If an ISP customer unknowingly violates usage terms by sending an email blast to names collected from the Web, the ISP could be put on the SPEWS list. If your company, as an innocent and legitimate customer, uses that same ISP address, your email is now considered spam. You, too, could be blocked from sending email business communications.

To add salt to the wound, there’s little hope of getting off a blacklist such as SPEWS. In answer to the question, “How does one contact SPEWS?” the Web site declares, “One does not.”

ESPs Caught in the Middle

All this puts tremendous pressure on ESPs, many of which are doing everything they can to stop spam. Even if an ESP is a double-opt-in proponent, its customers may have single-opt-in policies, viewed as evil by blacklist organizations. An ESP does not necessarily know with certainty if everyone on a list is fully confirmed or double-opted-in. It’s not practical for an ESP to take a customer’s list of 100,000 addresses and send an email inquiring, “Hey, can my customer send you email?”

Business Suffers in the Long Run

E-mail is an important commerce and business mechanism. It’s one of the most efficient ways to communicate. It’s inevitable that increasingly more commerce will be conducted over the Internet, and it’s unfortunate to see spam deter this. Spam is a very complicated problem that’s drowning out legitimate email communication. No filtering solution is 100 percent effective. That’s why it is important to support the movement for industry regulation and standards.

Time for spring cleaning. E-mail me your thoughts about what part of your e-newsletter strategy most needs a fresh new approach.

Many of you noticed ClickZ newsletters changed recently. Executive Editor Rebecca Lieb gives you a quick rundown.

Related reading