Could We Actually Be Winning the Spam War?

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."

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick 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?