Business-like, isn't he?



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    Spam vigilance stalling delivery of legitimate business e-mail

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver October 5-11, 2004; issue 780; High Tech Office column

    Say the word "Internet" and we tend to think of the billions of Web pages filled with everything from online sales to trivia to porn. But arguably, e-mail is more vital to the way many of us work, providing near-instant speed while leaving behind a digital record of our communications.

    Of course that assumes that mail always goes through.

    Last June, a colleague responded to an e-mail of mine he had just received; he wondered why I had sent him what seemed like old news about Apple's wireless Airport hardware. When we checked the normally hidden message headers, we discovered that I'd sent the e-mail on January 11 ... 2000, four and a half years earlier.

    What had been a timely message when it was sent had somehow wandered around the Net for nearly half a decade before arriving at its destination.

    A recent Australian study concluded that some 1.6 per cent of e-mail messages don't make it to their recipients. University of New South Wales lecturer Tim Moors set up e-mail accounts with a broad range of services and sent out hundreds of test messages. The messages were short and nearly contentless to reduce the risk of having them removed by spam filters. Every one of the e-mail accounts "lost" at least some of the messages, in many cases providing no notice to the sender that the mail had not made it to the recipient. One service failed to deliver 10 per cent of the messages sent to it.

    A separate problem arises with spam filtering. A report released last spring by Return Path, a company that measures e-mail performance, found that the largest 16 U.S. Internet Service Providers were incorrectly labelling an average of 19 per cent of legitimate business-to-consumer e-mails as spam, tossing them into rarely-accessed Junk Folders.

    Earthlink had the best performance, with a still-high error rate of seven per cent. The worst service had a false positive rate of 37 per cent in this study, which was carried out in the last half of 2003. Return Path's study looked at 30,000 messages that were either transaction confirmations, orders or opt-in newsletters requested by the recipients.

    The company notes that the percentage of legitimate business messages getting through has gone down consistently over the two years that it has carried out these surveys. Spam filtering, whether by third-party services like Frontbridge or Postini, by software installed on business or ISP networks or by users on their desktops, has dramatically reduced the amount of spam appearing in many users' inboxes. But as Return Path's surveys suggest, this might be coming at the expense of wrongly filtering out many legitimate business messages.

    Businesses need to make an effort to ensure that their e-mailed receipts and newsletters don't look like spam. Set up a series of dummy test accounts with various e-mail services and check to see whether your e-mail is being received.

    And end-users need to get in the habit of regularly checking what's been dumped in their Junk Folders. (Some ISPs make this hard to do; they should hear about your dissatisfaction with this.) Services like Frontbridge and Postini seem to have the best record of avoiding these sorts of false-positives, but even so, users should check what's being filtered out.

    Of course, this assumes that a message makes it far enough to be filtered out. As the Australian study suggests, a sizable number of your messages may not be making it to the recipient at all. So if you send me a message and I don't respond, maybe it's because I never received your message in the first place. Try the phone.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan