When spam filters go bad

Trying to block junk mail, my cable modem company installed a system that prevented me from getting my REAL mail -- and when I complained, insisted it was all for the good of the System.

Published June 19, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

"The equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation": That's what Frank Zappa, testifying before a Senate committee in 1985, called the censorship plans of the Parents Music Resource Center. In the annals of overreaction, draconian measures tend to spring from mind-muddling passions -- in the case of the PMRC, parental desire to protect the young from nastiness. But when it comes to passion, even our darkest, most primal instincts can hardly compare to the raw fury that people have come to feel toward spam. So e-mail users, beware: It's time to watch your head. I can testify from personal experience that the cure has finally become worse than the disease.

In June, the company that provides my cable modem service, Road Runner, installed a superaggressive new set of spam blockers on its e-mail servers. Late in the first day of the blockers' activation, I suddenly noticed that I hadn't gotten any e-mail at all in nearly three hours. No e-mail from Salon colleagues or from friends and, most puzzling of all, no e-mail from the editor at the New York Times with whom I'd been corresponding all morning about a freelance piece I was writing for her. I gave her a call.

Turns out I'd never received several e-mails that she and other Times staffers had sent me. A few tests proved that I was still receiving e-mail from Salon addresses and a trickle of other messages, but not getting Times e-mail wasn't going to fly. So I poked around a bit more and found the e-mail address for Road Runner's security department. And that's when I fell down a rabbit hole into spam-blocker hell.

My e-mail of complaint to Road Runner security elicited an autoreply that could have been composed by the Queen of Hearts from "Alice in Wonderland":



The message went on to explain in somewhat confusing terms exactly what this imperious personage demanded to see in order to deem my existence worthy of notice. The upshot, though, was that anyone whose e-mail to my Road Runner address was being blocked had to contact Road Runner Security directly, sending a copy of the error message they'd received when their e-mails to me bounced back.

I wasn't about to ask a busy newspaper editor to hassle with the technical staff at my service provider, and I had a copy of the "bounce" message from the spam blocker that she'd sent to my Salon address. So I sent that off to Security with a note, hoping to correct the situation without having to involve the Times.

But that's all I could do: hope. Suppose Security found the bounce message I had sent insufficiently informative? What if the message was adequate but the fact that it had been forwarded by me and not by the original sender met with the disapproval of these faceless, nameless, ALL-CAPS-spouting authorities? Off with its head! And I'd never know that my message had been summarily executed. I would "NOT RECEIVE FURTHER COMMUNICATION." My e-mail had gone to Camp X-Ray.

I began to fret. Were there other people who'd sent me legitimate e-mail that couldn't get through Road Runner's fascistic new spam blockers? If they didn't have my phone number or one of my alternate e-mail addresses, how could they let me know about it? What if someone sent me an e-mail, got the bounce message in response, and then decided that tracking me down was too much trouble? What if that message was really, really important -- to me at least?

A couple of persistent souls managed to get word to me that their e-mails had bounced back. Those e-mails were sent by 1) a venerable publisher of trade magazines and 2) an even more venerable publisher of books. Along with the New York Times, neither struck me as likely culprits of spam abuse, but Salon's own tech staff explained that they might seem to be, on account of something called relays used by crafty spam perps looking to cover their tracks. So that meant that anybody -- anybody -- might have their domain name hijacked by spammers, then blocked by my service provider. And this could happen at any time. Geez.

Several pleasant but not very effective Road Runner customer service people explained to me that my only recourse was to ask these senders to petition Road Runner for the removal of the scarlet S. That meant asking the various senders for the names of their in-house network administrators (providing they actually knew who this was, not a given in large organizations), making sure each sender forwarded a copy of Road Runner's bounce message to the administrator, then contacting the administrator to ask that s/he ask Road Runner to be taken off the spammer list.

Needless to say, this was a massive time suck. As the week drew to a close, it seemed I'd frittered away almost half my work hours trying to correct the mess and taking phone calls from Road Runner's customer service people, who kept ringing up to ask if my concern had been addressed, listen to my nth rant about the situation, and then politely explain that they couldn't address my concern. This was taking a whole lot more time than the simple act of deleting unwanted spam -- and believe me, I get a lot of spam. And I still couldn't be sure that I was getting all my legitimate mail.

No matter whom I managed to contact, I received robotically identical responses explaining the necessity of spam filters and reiterating that only Security could lift a block and only the sender's network administrator could negotiate the unblocking. One rep did slip me a special customer service address where I sent a complaint about the inconvenience of the whole thing and suggested that Road Runner's spam blockers might be a tad excessive. Someone wrote back: "Our system has spam filters in place to protect our network from being overloaded by bulk unsolicited e-mail. The end result benefits our subscribers, who can expect less downtime and higher service levels." When I suggested that the willy-nilly blocking of perfectly legitimate e-mail necessary to one's livelihood didn't really seem like a "higher service level" to me, he replied that I shouldn't be using my e-mail account for "commercial, or revenue generating purposes."

Somehow, my cheerful, speedy, efficient cable modem service had morphed into evasive, officious martinets; Road Runner had turned into Ari Fleischer. I was trying to speak up on behalf of the unjustly stigmatized, but I was treated as if I were some kind of soft-headed liberal spam lover. Didn't I understand how important it was to protect the network? What were a few abused messages when the greater good was at stake? And what was I doing getting that kind of message, anyway? Broken, I reverted to using my Salon.com address as my main account.

I have to admit that the policy of eradicating spam by blocking nearly every message has a breathtaking ambition to it, even if it pretty much eliminates the usefulness of e-mail altogether. Even so, it doesn't work. There's still a handful of messages coming through on my Road Runner address every day. And they're almost all spam.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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