The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Hate Spam? Blame the rest of the world

Posted by Deliverator on August 1st, 2007

I’ve been struggling with possibly closing my longstanding email addresses. The volume of spam has just reached a annoyingly high threshold and has pushed me into solution seeking/decision making mode. I have been using speakeasy as my personal email host for many, many years and extricating myself from their grasp would not be pleasant. Vendor Lock-in sucks! ISP provided email accounts are one of the classic examples of vendor lock-in. Historically, it costs an ISP almost nothing on a per-customer basis to provide basic email services, yet dependence on a particular email address makes customers extremely reluctant to leave, almost irregardless of how badly other ISP services are being provided. These days, it is trivial for even Joe average DSL user to register a domain name and arrange for 3rd party email hosting. If you don’t like the service you are getting from a particular ISP, you can easily switch hosting for you domain’s email to any one of literally hundreds of extremely cost and feature competitive email service providers, without loosing your email addresses or indeed any email sent during the transition between providers.

I have been advocating domain based email to my clients for years and I’ve had a number of domains registered to me (no, I won’t tell you all of them) for ages and have been gradually extricating myself from my old accounts. My guess is it would still take several man-days worth of effort to completely cut the chord and even then, I would still have to maintain the accounts for a while longer to ensure nothing too important had slipped my mind.

I am extremely reluctant to cut the chord, though, as Speakeasy has proven itself exceedingly reliable as a mail host over the years and has generally had a strong history of user-favorable policies and useage agreements. Unfortunately, their SPAM filtering technology hasn’t kept up with the times and their recent acquisition by Best Buy , a company I deplore, has made me reluctant to continue doing business with them. Their webmail interface is also extremely crude compared to modern, highly dynamic web email clients. They attempted a webmail system upgrade earlier this year with great fanfare and then quietly rolled it back several days later with little explanation and there has been zero progress towards a better system since then.

Speakeasy’s existing SPAM filtering solution, while using the excellent and powerful SpamAssassin for flagging down spam, is next to useless, as next to none of its functionality is exposed to customers. Speakeasy literally gives you a “stronger or weaker” filtering slider bar and the option to either toss flagged messages into a folder for review or to add a header to the subject line. I find that at any “strength” level necessary to correctly flag a significant percentage of incoming spam, I get an equally high level of false positives, aka inappropriate flagging of good, desired messages as spam. The only other functionality their spam filter provides is to whitelist specific email addresses as known good and to blacklist email addresses. Unfortunately, most spam these days uses false “from:” headers, so this blacklist functionality is next to useless. In the end, I pretty much have Speakeasy filter nothing and I do all my filtering on the client end using an excellent, highly configurable filtering system called Spamato. Using mostly the stock plugin options, Spamato manages to filter out almost all the spam I receive while having an extremely low false positive rate. Still, I cannot afford to miss important messages, so I usually give the “flagged as spam” list a quick once over before finally consigning the messages to the trash. This final review process used to be relatively quick, but these days I am receiving many hundreds of spam messages a day and even that quick glance eats up a lot of my time.

There are a lot of potential solutions short of canceling my Speakeasy email accounts. I could forward all my email through one of my external filtering services to weed out the most egregious spam before it ever arrives in my Inbox. I could refine my Spamato filters still further. I could just accept that every once in a while an important email will go unread. Or, I could simply BLOCK THE WORLD…muhahah!.

For a number of years, unknown to most users, ISPs in the US and some other areas of the world with pro-active sys admins have quietly been making it very difficult to send spam emails through their servers. Techniques like Domain Keys and Sender Policy Framework and variously effective user authentication measures have made it very difficult for spammers to send out emails using outbound mail servers within the US. While a lot of spam is generated in the US by residential computer users whose computers are infected by malware/viruses which turn them into unwitting botnet zombies, very little spam is being sent through servers within the US. Most of spam zombies have to rely on poorly administered (or conspiring) mail servers outside of the US to do their dirty work. To give you an idea, here is a list of the originating domains for the last 20 or so spam emails I have received:

every last one of those domains lies outside of the US. For now, I am going to keep my Speakeasy accounts and simply discard all email sight unseen from the French, Italians, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, etc.

The eminently quoteable W.C. Fields said it best, “I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.”