September 30, 2003 9:15 AM PDT

AOL filters spam tools down to users

America Online is extending the availability of its personalized antispam software to people who use older versions of its online services.

The software for blocking unwanted e-mail previously had been accessible only to AOL customers who use the latest versions of the company's online services, AOL 9.0 Optimized and AOL for Broadband. The personalized antispam controls are now available to users of AOL 8.0 Plus and will be extended to versions 8.0, 7.0 and 6.0, and to AOL for Mac OS X later this year, the company announced Tuesday.

The upgraded antispam package allows subscribers to set up filters that block e-mail, based on specific keywords or URLs. The system centers on a spam folder where suspected e-mail messages are quarantined and separated from members' other incoming traffic.

Subscribers with AOL 6.0 through AOL 8.0 Plus or the Mac OS X version will now be able to get to their spam folders and view the contents when accessing their accounts. AOL also said that later this year the repository of unwanted messages would become accessible via a link appearing on subscribers' mailboxes.

In the past, AOL has automatically blocked e-mail sent from sources that run their own e-mail servers through a broadband service, a common way for spammers to distribute their messages. Internet service providers have also been required to register their mail servers with AOL to keep e-mail from being blocked. However, this shotgun approach has at times affected legitimate e-mailers, such as small businesses that run their own mail servers.

"Unwanted e-mail is public enemy No. 1 for AOL members, and we are continuing to work with our members to fight the battle against spam," David Gang, executive vice president of AOL products, said in a statement. "The automatic delivery of these spam filters will be seamless to members using earlier versions of the AOL software...They will quickly see a noticeable difference in the number of spam e-mails they receive."

AOL said that the upgraded spam filters require no additional software installation and that the tools would be augmented by the company's server-side, spam-filtering efforts. The company estimates that it blocks up to 2.4 billion pieces of junk e-mail each day and receives reports of up to 10 million unwanted e-mail per day from its customers.

Despite AOL's efforts to improve its spam-fighting capabilities, industry watchers remain unconvinced that the massive ISP has made significant inroads regarding the problem. Jim Nail, analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research admits that he recently ditched his AOL account when he swapped to a broadband ISP.

"Despite all the press releases citing the numbers of messages (AOL) has blocked, my inbox was always clogged," Nail said. "Spam remains a huge issue that consumers truly hate, and AOL is losing customers as they move to broadband providers."

However, Nail doesn't believe that spam has become a major threat to AOL's revenue. He observed that other ISPs have endured similar struggles with the spam epidemic and said the so-called Bayesian logic, or probability theory, employed in the design of AOL's latest antispam tools, which were extended to a wider audience through Tuesday's announcement, could help.

Bayesian logic is being used by AOL in its software to apply certain statistical information into the process of differentiating spam from other e-mail messages. Nail believes this more sophisticated approach could help in the battle against spammers.

"The tools in the 9.0 release could be a major improvement if they live up to billing," said Nail. "I don't think spam has become a game-loser for AOL just yet."

The analyst said that AOL should also continue to push legislators to create stronger laws that punish spammers and noted that the company's involvement with groups such as the Network Advertising Initiative could bear fruit. The Network Advertising Initiative, an organization of technology companies that send e-mail for marketers, is working to create standards to fight online spam.

"If they can put some people in jail for (sending spam), I think you'd see a drop-off in activity," he said.

Earlier this year, AOL forwarded customers an online petition that asked state and federal legislators to expand laws meant to curtail spam. More than 1 million members reviewed and signed the document, according to AOL.

 

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