WebTV Email-Blocking Continues

By Net4TV Voice
November 8, 1998

In its attempt to eliminate spam to its users, WebTV is continuing to block a number of major ISPs and legitimate services from sending email to any WebTV subscribers. Domains appearing on the list this past week included AOL, PacBell, Yoyodyne. CWX and Bristol-Myers Squibb. In some cases, a single mail server or dial-up was blocked, while in others, all mail from the domain or network was banned.

Net4TV Voice has learned that the blocked domains are not notified that they are being blocked. Mail is returned with a 443 error code -- a server code that usually means "we're having a problem, please try again later." Most mail servers will continue to attempt to deliver the mail for up to five days before generating a "failed mail" message.

"So that's why I got 300 returned emails from my WebTV members," exclaimed Scott Nelson, CIO of WCX, when informed of the block. WCX is a network marketing firm that sells its members access to an online mall. Members who do not already have Internet access are provided a WebTV Plus as part of their membership package. "We're one of WebTV's biggest non-retail distributors," said Nelson, "and our members depend on it to shop and to recruit new members." Because of the block, Nelson was unable to contact WebTV via email; he left a message on the WebTV answering machine and, by the next day, the block on WCX had been removed.

Other blocked domains weren't so fortunate. Yoyodyne, a division of Yahoo that runs opt-in promotional contests for major companies via email, also appeared on the block list. Yoyodyne's Vice-President of Marketing, Jerry Shereshewky, told Net4TV Voice:

"For the record, we do not spam. We have never spammed. Every single piece of e-mail that we send out - and we do send lots - is the result of a deliberate action of opting-in taken by a knowledgable adult."

"Yoyodyne promotions are only open to adults (with certain very rare exceptions, and those have been for college students). Every one of our promotions requires an e-mail address for registration. (How else can we tell you if you've won?) And every one of our promotions has involved at least 1 weekly e-mail to every participant. We fully disclose this up front and provide a simple and relatively fool-proof way of stopping the flow of mail."

"We generally get about a 1-2% "quit" rate. This is quite small. Sometimes someone enters a promotion and uses someone else's e-mail address. Often this is a child entering on behalf of a parent. This leads to a surprise when our e-mails arrive. But, about 98% of the time, our participants expect our mail, open our mail and read it. It's anticipated, personal and highly relevant."

Shereshewky told Net4TV Voice that he would contact WebTV to have Yoyodyne removed from the block list, but 48 hours later, the domain was still blocked.

WebTV Users Affected

Net4TV Voice received numerous emails from WebTV users about the spam blocking, with more than 90% expressing strong opposition. Said Fran Robinson:

I was wondering why I had not heard from my daughter lately. Today I found out! To say that I am MAD would be an understatement! I know where the discard button is located. I DO NOT WANT MY MAIL CENSORED FOR ME! I can do that myself!

Other users pointed out that WebTV subscribers were being penalized instead of the spammers. Said N. Dominies:

I think it's terrible the way Webtv is handling the spam situation. We pay our $19.95 per month like PC "access the world." Now Webtv is taking that away from us because they don't have the know-how to deal with the situation. I suggest they put someone in charge who KNOWS what thay are doing....instead of punishing their own subscribers for the sins of others.

A couple of users defended WebTV. "Get over it," said one user. "What did you do before email? Send a letter, make a phone call."

Another user claimed that WebTV did inform ISPs of the spam before blocking the domain; however, none of the ISPs and domains who talked to Net4TV Voice had been informed in any way by WebTV. The user also claimed that "Spam can be detected well before it ever arrives to users on any ISP. If a mailsorter is being monitored, it can detect large amounts of mail originating from one user. This can often throw a monkey wrench into the uses of listmailers and the like, but its getting worked around." In fact, however, listmailers are common and legitimate uses of the Internet and are a way that many discussions are conducted and subscriptions to newsletters are delivered. Net4TV Voice itself sends email each publication date to over 700 subscribers, all of whom have requested the service.

What Is Spam?

Several new users wanted to know just what spam was. Generally, the term is used to mean unsolicited commercial email (also known as UCE). The most common "spams" are for bulk-emailing packages (for more spamming), porno sites, chain letters and other get-rich-quick schemes, and general advertisements.

Most ISPs prohibit spam in their Terms of Service and will immediately cancel any user who uses the network for UCE. As a result, most spammers try to hide the real origin of their email, often by using forged sending addresses and by relaying through other mail servers. WebTV email does not show full headers unless they are "bounced" off another email outside of WebTV. The Net4TV Voice article, SpamBusting!, explains how to forward an email to HotMail or a PC and then read the headers to find out where it really came from.

Once the sending domain has been identified, a forward of the email with the headers expanded to the postmaster at the originating domain will result in the spammer's account being terminated. (In fact, WebTV is one of the few networks that does not routinely terminate users who spam on their first offense.) As a result, most spammers are "hit and run" artists, signing up for a dial-up account at an ISP, sending out a flood of bulk email, and then signing up with a new ISP as soon as they are terminated.

Often, spammers try to disguise their spam as a mis-routed email. If you get an email which seems to be from one friend to another (neither of whom you know) but which mentions a free PC or a great stock or gambling site with a link to go there, it's really spam. Since many people automatically delete spam without reading it, spammers will often use a subject of "Hi" or "Catching up" to get you to open the mail, while a favorite ploy of porno sites is to claim "I met you in chat the other day."

Is It Spam, Or....?

Not every bulk email is spam. Many professional and special interest groups use mailing lists instead of newsgroups or forums to discuss among themselves. Mailing lists are much less prone to "trolls" and troublemakers than are newsgroups, and users are not required to keep checking the group to see if anyone new has posted.

But email can sometimes go awry and flood a mailbox. Just this week, one of the Net4TV staffers received 26 copies of a mail forum because another staffer's mailbox was full; both users were cc'ed on the list and, when one box bounced it (with a 443 message), the sending server continued to try. Email also occasionally can get misrouted; the "spam" that you've received could be a legitimate mail intended for someone else. Sometimes, people will sign up their friends (or enemies) on a mailing list. It isn't necessarily real spam.

And there's one type of UCE that you might call spam, but WebTV would not -- email that WebTV has been paid to send to you. MCI, Inergy and FutureNet are three examples of companies who have been facilitated by WebTV in sending unsolicited commercial email to you.

Want To Do Something About This?

If your legitimate email is being blocked and you want to do something about it, the first thing you can do is to let the ISP who's being blocked know about it. Write postmaster@domain (whatever the domain name is, including the .com or .net ending) and tell them; be sure to give them the link to so that they can check for themselves and see how to contact WebTV to have the block removed. Don't just assume that they know -- WebTV email returns a 443 quite often when the mail servers are having problems, and the blocked mail just looks like another WebTV mail server problem.

Then, write to every address you know at WebTV and demand that they stop the wholesale blocking of domains.

The user who defended WebTV stated "If webtv is cracking down more effectively on spammers, other ISPs should follow the example. After all, if any other method had worked, there wouldnt be spam now, would there?"



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