- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

America Online Inc. yesterday made its first acquisition of an anti-spam company when it bought Mailblocks Inc., a Los Altos, Calif., firm with a patented method to stop unwanted e-mail.

The world’s largest Internet provider, based in Sterling, Va., said it will allow subscribers to block junk messages using Mailblocks’ “challenge-response” system, which accepts e-mail only from people who verify they are not spammers.

Terms were not disclosed.

Under Mailblocks’ service, anyone sending e-mail to a subscriber will receive a “challenge” message prompting them to type in a pass code. Once the code is entered, the original e-mail message is sent unfettered and any future messages from that sender will not be challenged.

The service operates on the idea that most spammers send junk mail through automated systems incapable of answering the challenges.

“We’ve been eyeing this technology for quite some time,” AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. “What we want to do is provide as many robust e-mail options as possible.”

AOL processes millions of unwanted e-mail messages, known as spam, each day. Spam now makes up more than two-thirds of all e-mail sent worldwide, forcing companies and Internet providers to spend billions of dollars on extra bandwidth, storage and filtering services.

Independent tests have showed that most Mailblocks users receive less spam than people relying on traditional e-mail filters. But many e-mail users argue that the challenge-response system is cumbersome and blocks legitimate bulk e-mail, such as newsletters and requested advertisements.

AOL said the service is ideal for a “niche subgroup” of e-mail users who want heavy protection against spam, and that it can be managed with little technical expertise.

“It’s not for everyone, for sure,” Mr. Graham said.

AOL said Mailblocks will complement its own efforts to block unwanted e-mail using filters, and can work with developing technologies designed to cut down on fraudulent, or “spoofing,” e-mails.

Mailblocks charges $10 to $25 for its service, depending on the amount of storage space. AOL said it will offer the service free of charge. AOL did not predict how many of its subscribers would sign on to the Mailblocks option.

Atlanta Internet provider Earthlink said 678,863 of its subscribers use the company’s “SpamBlocker” tool, which is similar to Mailblocks. Earthlink has about 5.3 million subscribers, though many of them do not use Earthlink for e-mail.

Mailblocks was founded by Phil Goldman, the inventor of WebTV and a former manager at Microsoft and Apple, who died of a heart attack in December at age 39.

“He was a visionary, and we had a great deal of respect for what he accomplished,” Mr. Graham said.

AOL said it plans to integrate Mailblocks’ Web interface with its own e-mail program. It is not clear whether current Mailblocks users will be asked to join AOL, but the company said it is working on a transition plan. For now, Mailblocks service is unchanged and new subscribers are being accepted. All 15 employees of Mailblocks will be offered jobs at AOL’s offices in Mountain View, Calif., Mr. Graham said.

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