- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

A technique being hailed by some companies as the silver bullet in the fight against spam is wildly unpopular among people who send and receive heavy amounts of legitimate e-mail.

Online publishers, retailers and many technology analysts have railed against the influx of companies offering “challenge-response” e-mail systems, which ask anyone sending a message to fill out a form before allowing the message to go through, thus blocking messages sent from automated spam computers.

As many as 50 challenge-response vendors have appeared this year, and many independent analysts concede that the system is far more effective than traditional filters in blocking unwanted commercial e-mail, known as spam. But many e-mail users have complained that despite its success, challenge-response is too flawed, inconvenient and impolite.

Under challenge-response, any e-mail from a person not in a recipient’s address book, or “white list,” automatically triggers a response e-mail back to the sender. The response e-mail, or “challenge,” then asks the sender to type a code to prove he or she is a human and not an automated spam machine. Once the challenge is accepted, the original e-mail goes through.

But to some people, that’s too much of an aggravation.

“It just doesn’t smack as American,” said David Murphy, membership director for the International Association of Information Technology Trainers. “It’s a major hassle just to send an e-mail.”

Mr. Murphy said he objects to challenge response “in its current form” because developers have not created a way for his newsletters to reach hundreds of subscribers without a problem. He says that if all of his subscribers used challenge-response systems, he would receive scores of e-mails asking to prove he’s a not a spammer.

“I don’t really have the time to do that, nor do I have an inclination, because it’s a free newsletter,” Mr. Murphy said. He said in some cases a challenge might be interpreted as a note indicating the message was undeliverable and that subscriber would be kicked off the list accidentally.

Earthlink, an Internet service provider offering a challenge-response solution called “spamBlocker,” said it has created solutions to make it easier for publishers and retailers to operate as normal.

Under the spamBlocker system, e-mail that is sent in bulk, such as a newsletter or a discount coupon from a retailer, does not trigger a challenge. Instead, such mail — provided that it is permission-based e-mail and not spam — is sent to a folder separate from a computer user’s in box.

“What they’re worried about is sending out a newsletter and being hit with a number of challenges,” said Earthlink spokesman Jerry Grosso. “If they follow the protocol, that won’t happen.”

Mailblocks, a Los Altos, Calif., company that says it has a patent on challenge-response, said it gives customers several disposable e-mail addresses called “trackers” that they can use to receive messages they prefer not be challenged.

But critics point out that those “tracker” e-mail addresses could be susceptible to spam. And they said using a separate folder for bulk mail simply creates extra work.

“All that says to me is that rather than just check my in box, I have to go someplace else,” said Jonathan Penn, a technology analyst with Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass. “To me, that doesn’t do much.”

Nearly a dozen technology analysts and computer professionals outlined what they viewed as flaws in challenge-response. Among their complaints:

cIt slows down e-mail communications. For people needing a quick answer to a question, responding to a challenge can be an unwanted delay. “In the business world, that can be a big pain,” Mr. Penn said. “I could take my laptop and go on a plane and not be able to respond. It’s not an efficient way to do business.”

• It’s rude. Several managers of computer help desks said they found it insulting that they had to answer a challenge from a person who had called for computing help.

• Spam filters must be trained to know that challenge messages aren’t spam. But already, spammers have figured out how to disguise spam to look like challenge messages.

Challenge-response developers said they are continuously tweaking their products to make them more user-friendly. The most recent version of Mailblocks, for instance, will challenge only new senders of e-mail. Once the challenge is accepted, the sender will not be challenged again.

Mailblocks CEO Phil Goldman, a former Microsoft vice president and inventor of WebTV, said he believes challenge-response will be widely adopted. He equated the system to the computer mouse, which was met with reluctance at first but is now universally used.

“It is a change, I agree,” he said. “Any change you have to do socially is hard. But of all the technologies that can work, challenge-response is the only one.”

It is not clear how quickly challenge-response is being adopted; companies offering the technology are private and have not released subscriber figures.

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