Web Informant #293, 9 July 2002:
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George Carlin once had a bit about the seven dirty words that couldn't be said on TV: if only our email systems were as discrete and predictable about the nature of their censorship. Indeed, I can almost guarantee that if I include certain words in this message (such as viag--, -orn, make -oney -ast, or any of Carlin's seven choice words), many of you won't ever get this email.

The trouble is that spammers, virus authors (or whatever deriding term you would like to use to call the scum that create these annoyances), and others have become too clever at creating their garbage. And in the ever escalating war of technology, email filtering products have become too good at cutting off legitimate messages, just because they contain the equivalent of Carlin's list.

The best research on this was an article that was posted to the TidBITS mailing list this past week. If you are interested in Macs and in general the Internet, this is a weekly series of essays that Adam Engst and others writes and distributes for free via email to over 40,000 people, along with posting it to tidbits.com and many other web sites. Geoff Duncan concludes several trends:

In short, we're starting to see signs that email, often hailed as the Internet's 'killer app,' is in danger of becoming an unreliable, arbitrarily censored medium - and there's very little we can do about it."

That isn't good news at all. Duncan did some careful analysis of the bounced emails on his subscriber list. His error logs for one essay that contained that special drug's name had bounces from over 1,000 sites, including "relatively high- profile sites like the Association for Computing Machinery and VeriSign." Another essay was "rejected by over 1,100 sites because it sarcastically referred to an advertising campaign for a particular type of wireless video camera. Still other sites rejected it because it contained the word 'undress' and another word describing a hair color."

And to make matters worse, "every copy of TidBITS #601 sent to subscribers at a large aerospace company (whose name sounds like 'boing!') was rejected because it contained a particular URL; apparently, an email administrator somewhere within this organization of tens of thousands of people decided that any email message containing that URL should be rejected outright. Ironically, the offending URL was owned by a company that counts the aerospace company among its clients." Duncan says "lately, hardly a week goes by where we don't make changes to an issue to avoid phrases and terms which have set off overly aggressive filters."

The problem has to do with corporate or ISP-level filters on email: these filters are often installed because of the level of spam and junk mail that these corporations receive every day. Spam blocking vendor Brightmail estimates that junk mail volume is five times what it was a year ago, with close to five million messages delivered last month alone. That is a lot of wasted bandwidth and lost productivity. I have noticed that my main personal email address gets over a 100 spam messages a day now: up about ten times what it was a year ago. I have almost thought of turning my account off at times.

This isn't just a few individuals tuning up their filters to reject messages: the problem is on a wholesale level. There's often no way for individual users to determine whether or how their email is being filtered. That is very troubling, because obviously these filters are catching a lot of ordinary messages.

I experienced this problem with my own Web Informants a while ago: I forget exactly what I did to cause the spam brigade to catch my messages: was it the exclamation point in the subject line? Or some offending word buried in the message body? Who knows. I don't think I used any of Carlin's dirty seven words.

It is enough to want to bring back something like the Comstock Act (which back in 1876 made it illegal to send birth control information through the US Mail) and ask George Carlin to update his routine and look at words in common use by spammers. (Curiously, some Internet registrars have banned domain owners from creating domain names with any of these seven words. Tell that to f--kedcompany.com.) I wish I could offer you some suggestions, but I am too busy deleting my spam on that herbal viag-- (why would anyone want to buy such a thing is beyond me) and other trash to think about it.

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David Strom
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