February 5, 2004 10:24 AM PST

E-mail service vows to stop spam, spare the good

A start-up is offering a Web-based e-mail service that aims to stop spam dead in its tracks without blocking out potentially useful e-mails.

New York-based ZoEmail on Thursday launched its spam-free e-mail service using technology licensed from AT&T Labs. The company said the technology can completely eliminate unwanted and unsolicited e-mail from users' in-boxes.

Other e-mail service providers, such as America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo, offer filtering services. But what makes ZoEmail different, according to the company, is that it can block unwanted e-mail, without blocking e-mails from friends, colleagues and mailing lists a person would like to get.

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The biggest problem people face today in their battle against spam is the trade-off between high levels of antispam protection and the prospect of missing important e-mail messages. Software filters tend to have high rates of false positives, which means that they block good e-mail along with the bad. ZoEmail said AT&T's technology has solved this problem.

"We allow users to have control over their privacy and security, so they don't have to worry about getting obnoxious e-mails," said Mike Oyster, president of ZoEmail. "And unlike the filtering technologies that many services use, users don't have to look through hundreds of e-mails in their junk mail folders to find the one good e-mail."

Here's how it works: When a ZoEmail user wants to send a message, the system selects a unique "key"--a special word and number combination--and makes the "key" part of the ZoEmail user's e-mail address.

For example, instead of creating an e-mail address that simply says Jane@zoemail.com, the user creates a key with extra letters and characters that follow the name. For example, the e-mail address above could be Jane.1234gbd@zoemail.com. Jane can give out this coded e-mail to whomever she likes. Using this address gives certain senders permission to send Jane e-mail, which will get delivered unhindered. If a spammer randomly sends mail to Jane@zoemail.com, the messages will be bounced back and will never enter the in-box.

The ZoEmail service also enables Jane to create a separate key to anyone on her mailing list. And if by chance, her e-mail address falls into the wrong hands, she can revoke permission by simply clicking a disable "key" button.

The downside to this service is informing people on the mailing list of any key changes. But ZoEmail has tried to solve this problem. If an address is corrupted, users can choose to have a new key generated automatically when they send e-mails from a ZoEmail account.

The concept of disposable e-mails is nothing new. Other e-mail services, including Yahoo, Spamex and Mailshell, also offer similar capabilities. Typically, these services enable users to sign up for several e-mail addresses that they can turn on and off at will. They can also swap out old addresses with new ones, if they find themselves on unwanted mailing lists.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a public policy group, conducted a study last year that showed that one of the most successful methods of avoiding unwanted messages involves obscuring e-mail addresses or hiding them altogether. The group also suggested that people use multiple e-mail addresses that they could disable or throw away, if a spammer got a hold of it.

Unlike other e-mail services from Yahoo or Hotmail, which also offer antispam protection, the ZoEmail service will cost $11.88 for a one-year subscription with 12MB of storage space and $19.08 for an account with 50MB of storage space.

Spam is a growing concern for service providers. In November, a group of telecom providers, Internet service providers and software companies announced a plan to help fight spam. The group plans to share information about spammers and develop technology to fight it in the future. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo announced a similar alliance in 2003.

 

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