Could We Actually Be Winning the Spam War?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-01-05 Print this article Print

Opinion: AOL claims that they have the spammers on the run and that their filtering and lawyers are responsible. Why isn't anyone else getting results like this?

Ive been a confirmed pessimist on the future of spam for some time now, so it was with a Spocklike upturned eyebrow that I read AOLs announcement last week that it has turned the corner against spam delivered to its users. Its quite a bold announcement. They claim that the amount of spam complaints from their users is way down, as measured by the number of times users hit the "Report Spam" button in their AOL client. Specifically, the number of such reports went from 11 million daily in November 2003 to 2.2 million daily in November 2004.

At the same time they claim that the amount of mail being diverted into users spam folders—in other words, the spam caught by AOLs filters—is down from 100 million messages per day to 40 million.

Its easy to get reflexively cynical about such numbers. There have been many reports of declining membership at AOL, so maybe that accounts for some of the decline in users spam folders and a declining number of complaints. My sister is an AOL user and was so bothered by false positives in AOLs spam filtering that she turned it off for most of 2004. Perhaps such dissatisfaction with their filtering is responsible for some of the decrease. The language of the press release is suspicious in this regard, in that it talks about "declines in the amount of mail being diverted to AOL members Spam Folder" as opposed to the amount of spam blocked. (My sister recently re-enabled the spam filtering and decided to be assiduous about whitelisting people whose mail she needed to receive.)

On the other hand, AOL blocks a certain amount of mail at the boundary whether the user has spam filtering on or not—partly worm traffic, probes, mail fragments and things like that, but a lot of plain spam as well. An increase in the effectiveness of such techniques would increase the other effectiveness measures they report. Its reasonable to believe that the quality of this filtering and of other filtering has gotten better over the last year. But they actually claim just the opposite: "...the average daily amount of Internet spam e-mails that are blocked at the gateway by AOL antispam filters has declined sharply—a 50 percent drop—from a peak of about 2.4 billion in 2003, to an average daily volume of just 1.2 billion blocked spam e-mails in late 2004."

Click here to read about Lycos Europes attempt to slow spammers. The point of the announcement is actually not so much that AOLs anti-spam technology is getting better, but that spammers know not to mess with AOL and are targeting its users less. The marketing appeal of this is plain to see, especially at a time when ads from NetZero and others treat Internet service, including add-ons such as spam protection, as a commodity to be sought on price alone. AOL would have us believe that youll get less spam on their service irrespective of the technology.

Next page: So why is everyone else getting more spam?

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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