They say an optimist sees a glass that's half full, and a pessimist sees the same glass as half empty. Right now I'd probably call it a glass with the water level midway between top and bottom, because I cannot make up my mind whether I'm optimistic or pessimistic about the junk e-mail situation.
Earlier this year, I used the junk e-mail forwarded to me by readers of this column to determine which ISPs let the most spam through their servers. The two ISPs that were having the biggest problem at the time, AT&T Worldnet and Earthlink, both said messages were being illicitly relayed through their servers by noncustomers. Both also said they planned to take steps to start blocking the relayed junk e-mail, so it's time we check to see whether they've shown any improvement and what other ISPs may be showing signs of being too spam-tolerant.
Thanks to our discussions during the past few years about junk e-mail, I now have a fairly large group of readers who regularly copy me on their spam complaints to ISPs. Because most of them receive a great deal of junk e-mail, these readers tend to be diligent about tracking the path of the spams that come their way and letting all the involved parties know about it.
So by analysing the database of their messages for a 10-week period beginning in early August, I was able to get a good idea of where the junk e-mail is coming from.
The half-full news is that Worldnet, in particular, seems to have gotten its act together, and Earthlink has made some significant progress. Worldnet-relayed junk e-mail slowed to a trickle - it didn't even rank in the second tier of ISP spam-abuse complaints. Earthlink was in the second tier, along with America Online, CompuServe, Hotmail, Juno, PSI, and UUNet. (I did not count the complaints AOL customers sent to it.) The majority of the Earthlink complaints came in August, tapering off considerably later. So it appears to be moving in the right direction.
The dubious distinction of being the ISP with the most junk e-mail complaints easily went to Apex Global Infor-mation Services (AGIS). But in a way, this was not really bad news either. We already knew that AGIS had harboured Cyber Promotions and most of the other large, bulk e-mail houses, so it would have been very disturbing if any other ISP had proven more spam-friendly than it.
Unfortunately, no one from AGIS returned my calls, so I was not able to get confirmation about recent reports that AGIS has dropped Cyber Promotions and several other large offenders from its service (as well as the Internet E-Mail Marketing Council global-remove-list scheme AGIS was sponsoring with predictably questionable results).
A spam-free world?
That the bulk e-mailers were without a home might be the best news of all, but is it?
"This doesn't necessarily mean that AGIS has had a change of heart, because it is still harbouring many smaller spam operations," says John Levine, author of Internet for Dummies and also the host of the abuse.net site (www.abuse.net), which tracks junk e-mail offenders.
Levine fears that even if Cyber Promotions and its ilk go away, which is by no means certain to happen, there will just be more spam from the little guys.
"I think we'll be seeing more from hit-and-run accounts rather than the spam factories, and in a sense that's bad, because the spam factories are easier to filter," Levine says.
If Levine is seeing that glass as half empty, it's because although major ISPs are doing a better job of blocking junk e-mail relays, the overall amount of junk e-mail is still increasing. Comparing my tallies for this recent 10-week period to the results I had for the first quarter of the year, those readers who were forwarding me mail through both periods on average sent me almost 50 per cent more spam per week in the Q2 period.
But wait: there's still hope.
There's always the possibility that the Government will get its act together and . . . well, I'll let you decide if that prospect is half empty or half full for yourself.
Send your gripes about computer companies and products to Ed Foster at: firstname.lastname@example.org