Microsoft, AOL, Others Focus on Fixing Inboxes

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MILLBRAE, Calif. -- A gathering of ISPs, anti-spammers, and e-mail marketers gathered Tuesday to hammer out ways to fight the glut of spam while protecting the livelihood of direct online advertising.

More than 40 companies including Microsoft , AOL and delegates from companies like RoadRunner, Mail-Filters, YesMail and CheetahMail were represented as part of the E-mail Deliverability Summit II here. Sponsored by the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy (ISIPP), the idea behind the summit is to bring together two (usually opposing) sides of the spam debate.

Broken up into "senders" and "receivers" categories, the consortium came to several agreements in processing e-mail. The companies say it's a significant step considering there are no industry-wide best practices because of all the infighting in the different organizations."There is a lot of the gray area," one attendee who wished to remain anonymous told internetnews.com.

Some of the best practices rules agreed on by the group include one that mandates ISPs use the Request for Comment (RFC) 550 by 5.7.1 error code when handling unwanted submissions; establish a uniform process for complaint feedback loop; and suggest senders not remove an address until that address has replied three consecutive times with the most recent rejection occurring in at least 15 days.

On the sending side, part of the problem for e-mail marketers is that some ISPs such as AOL, have installed default setting that prohibit legitimate mass mailings.

"AOL 9.0, similar to Hotmail, does not show images and disables hyper-links in e-mail messages unless the sender is in the receiver's contact list," AOL AntiSpam Operations Technical Director Carl Hutzler told internetnews.com. "The reasoning is to protect the member base. The settings were originally defaulted for kid's accounts but then we put it in all accounts because more people were telling us they didn't want a bogus scam to look like legitimate mail. We understand that and think other ISPs are also looking for it."

Despite past differences, Microsoft is working with AOL on fighting spam. The two companies say they are brainstorming new ways to tackle the epidemic.

MSN Group Business Manager Kevin Doerr told internetnews.com best practices are a good start, but true technology will make a bigger impact reducing the amount of spam in people's inboxes.

"It doesn't matter if the good guys are playing by the rules, it only matters what the bad guys do and how we can stop them," he said.

Doerr said using existing industry standards and existing infrastructures would be the best way of getting anti-spam technology to market at least until scientists fully launch more secure transmission standards such as next generation SMTP .

Standards aside, the group acknowledged there is a power shift going on between ISPs and end users.

"One of the things to keep in mind is that as spam blocking software gets more sophisticated, the ISPs will become less and less the gatekeepers and the end users will gain more power in either accepting or rejecting e-mail," said Word to the Wise CEO Laura Tessmer.

Another consensus among attendees is that while the Summits proved invaluable in opening up communications between rival factions, in no way was it ready to replace either the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) or its subsidiary the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM) as a spearhead in the e-mail debate.

The group also announced a prototype of its e-mail delivery database (EDDB) as a repository for all the things discussed during both the First and Second Summits, which would be only available to the attendees or authorized recommendations from an attendee.

The first summit, held back in July, also suggested common standards for how to deal with everyday issues, such as establishing a Web site with the proper contacts at an ISP in case an e-mail marketer has a campaign blocked.

The ISIPP is expected to publish the recommendations gathered at the second Summit. The group is sponsoring a National Conference in January 2004 in San Francisco.