March 3, 1998 1:00 PM PST

GeoCities to users: email via ISPs

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In an attempt to curb the proliferation of spam sent carrying its domain name, GeoCities is asking its users to send mail using their own Internet service providers' mail servers rather than GeoCities'. But enforcement of the policy is on hold.

"To improve our general reliability and to prevent outside spamming (use of our servers for spam relay), in the next few weeks homesteaders will need to start using their ISP to route their GeoCities outgoing mail," reads a GeoCities bulletin dated February 18. The notice said incoming mail would not be affected and directed users to an informational page on the policy.

But when members of America Online and some others complained that their ISPs would not provide them with a server address, GeoCities decided to hold off on enforcing its request.

In a message dated March 2, the company informed its users that the policy would not be enforced pending a universally applicable solution.

"This issue is tough for us because on one hand we want to provide the best free email service possible, and on the other hand we want to act responsibly on the Internet. Shutting down our outgoing mail is inevitable, but we won't do it without first presenting another solution for our members," the notice said.

"We're going to hold off from cutting people off from using the mail servers until we have a solution that works for everyone," said GeoCities spokesperson Dick Hackenberg. Hackenberg estimated that the final cutoff for using "mail.geocities.com" to send mail would come in the next three to four weeks.

Hackenberg described the ban on GeoCities servers as an interim measure while the company develops the technology for an antispam system. "Our goal is to return the GeoCities servers to the use of our customers," he said.

Prior to yesterday's announcement, many GeoCities users expressed concern that the new policy would prevent them from using the service to send mail.

"I loved using GeocCities mail," wrote one AOL user in GeoCities' forum for email account problems. "[It is] so much better than AOL's. Now I guess I'll have to receive my GeoCites mail and reply to it from AOL...GeoCites, how could you mess us AOL folks up this way?"

The trouble for AOL members is that GeoCities is asking its users to specify a server address for their outgoing mail. For most ISPs, this is called the SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol) address. But AOL and other systems refuse to provide mail server addresses to users.

Despite the difficulty in enforcing the policy, Forrester Research analyst Kate Delhagen applauded GeoCities' effort as a necessary step to keep the service from being blacklisted as a spam domain.

"It's a very good play, because the risk of offering free email is that someone will rip you off using your email platform to send spam," said Delhagen. In addition to increasing the load on the company's servers, Delhagen said spam going out with GeoCities' name puts the company at risk for winding up on a "known spammers list." Such a designation could cause legitimate GeoCities mail to be blocked at certain ISPs, alienating GeoCities users and devaluing the service.

Other free email providers employ alternate strategies for blocking the use of their services for spam. Microsoft subsidiary Hotmail, for example, limits the number of recipients per email message to 25 and also grabs the Internet Protocol (IP) address from the computer from which mail is sent. In this way the company has been able to not only deter spammers, but also to cooperate with law enforcement tracking down suspected criminals. Last year, an IP address tacked onto a Hotmail email message led to the arrest of murder suspect Troy A. Mayo, who subsequently was convicted, according to Hotmail.

Hotmail also filed suit against a group of companies that allegedly used the free emailer's domain to send spam. The suit, filed in January, alleges that the offenders forged Hotmail's domain name, falsely identifying Hotmail as the originating service. (See related story)

 

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