20 April 2004
AOL is at it again. This time, it's reading *inside* its members' emails, and preemptively blocking any messages that contain links to sites that AOL doesn't want you to see.
Note: I'm *not* talking about simple mail blocks, where a mail is discarded if it originates from a "forbidden" address. No: AOL is parsing the content of its members' emails and blocking them even if they merely *mention* a site that AOL disapproves of.
This happened to my last newsletter issue, when I mentioned a perfectly valid and inoffensive link: http://www.codeproject.com/ . It turns out that last summer, in July, AOL put that site on its naughty list for some unexplained reason, and ever since has blocked all emails that even contain a link to that address.
When my list-host ( http://dundee.net ) noticed huge numbers of AOL emails bouncing back, they preemptively sought to find out why, and the folks at AOL then removed the block--- on that one address.
AOL's mail system is just this side of insane. Not only does it read inside member emails for links that AOL doesn't like, but--- as we've reported before--- if AOL members get a little lazy and block a newsletter like this one, instead of unsubscribing, AOL keeps track of the blocks. Last time I looked, if as few as 10 readers took the lazy way out of stopping a mailing, AOL would assume that the mail in question was spam. In my case, if just 10 AOL users out of 160,000 readers--- that's 0.00006 of my readers--- took the lazy way off the list, all AOL subscribers would have their legitimate issues blocked for some time thereafter.
AOL's user-level mail filters are nearly useless because the master filters discard emails before they ever make it to the users' mailboxes and the local filters there. That means AOL members can white-list senders to their heart's content but it will have no effect at all on the pre-filtering that's done by AOL before their mail ever gets delivered. AOL's user-level mail controls are a little like those fake thermostats you sometimes see in office buildings that are meant to give occupants the illusion of local control, when in reality, a central system is making all the real decisions.
Noted tech writer Brian Livingston also has been struggling with this, as he reported in http://briansbuzz.com/w/040408/ . Just look at the jaw-dropping failure rates he found:
I've written many times that Internet service providers (ISPs) are mishandling the growing menace of spam by imposing crude "junk-mail filters" that delete legitimate messages without notifying the intended recipients of that fact.
...AOL "bounced" about 88% of the newsletters that had been sent to subscribers who use aol.com e-mail addresses. The problem was also severe at subsidiaries owned by AOL, including cs.com (which bounced 88%) and netscape.net (96%).
...[AOL's] filter simply deletes huge quantities of mail without ever delivering it...
(click link above for full article)
If you have friends on AOL, you may wish to tell them about this ( http://www.langa.com/sendit.htm ) so they'll know why their email is so unreliable. Of course, there's no guarantee they'll see your email, just as there's no guarantee that legitimate subscribers to this newsletter on AOL will get this issue....
But there's a glimmer of hope: For the first time ever, AOL's membership has started to shrink significantly. Users are finally realizing they can get better service at lower costs from other ISPs. Perhaps if enough members vote with their dollars, AOL will wake up and meaningfully change its Big Brother-ish ways.
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