'White lists' emerge as a tool for consumers in fight against spam

Americans are discovering that the broad effort to fight spam can backfire.

Consider the experience of Josh Tinning. An e-mail that Mr. Tinning sent to the Federal Trade Commission last month bounced back after it was blocked by the agency's e-mail filters, according to, an online technology information source. Apparently, the FTC had "blacklisted" Tinning's Internet service provider, SBC Pacific Bell, because it was known to have hosted several customers who send spam, or unsolicited commercial messages.

According to CNET, the FTC is the first federal agency to use blacklists, which generally include Internet service providers or specific e-mail addresses from which the user of the list does not want to receive e-mail.

The agency says the use of such lists helps protect the productivity of its workers. But some consumer advocates argue that the filters also unfairly prevent consumers like Tinning from communicating with the agency.

The conflict illustrates the complexity of antispamming efforts and explains why several experts believe that more long-term solutions to the spam problem are needed.

Spam has become a household word since most Americans with e-mail accounts started receiving it in droves. In September 2001, unsolicited commercial e-mail messages only accounted for 8 percent of all e-mail sent in the US. By July 2002, the number had grown to 35 percent, according to Brightmail Inc., a San Francisco company that supplies antispam services to businesses.

So far, consumers' efforts to reduce spam have largely been reactive. Most try to fight back by installing software with filters.

Indeed, several companies are now touting the antispam features of their new Internet services. America Online, Microsoft, and Yahoo have all recently introduced new e-mail improvements they say will reduce the amount of spam Americans must sift through.

The services may partly lower the daily flow of spam, say experts, but they will also likely block e-mails that consumers want to read. As an alternative, several observers suggest that consumers instead adopt services that offer "white listing."

White-listing services like MailFrontier and Vanquish let users create a list of addresses from which they do want to receive messages, rather than force them to blacklist, or define the type of message they don't want to receive.

CruelMail, another service provider, lets users set a delivery fee to be charged to all e-mailers not on their list. If the e-mailer cares enough to pay the fee, it is a good indication that he or she is not a spammer.

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