Cloudmark Tackles False-Positive Problem

Spam filtering company Cloudmark on Thursday rolled out a new e-mail rating system that is designed to address the growing problem of unfairly filtered legitimate commercial e-mail messages.

The Cloudmark Rating System builds on its SpamNet system for filtering unwanted e-mail. Businesses can sign up online and receive a Cloudmark e-mail address to add to their subscriber list, which allows Cloudmark’s system to recognize e-mails from rated businesses. When a SpamNet user receives a legitimate e-mail from a Cloudmark-rated business, the system recognizes it as legitimate, ensuring its delivery. The system also installs an “unsubscribe” button on the user’s Outlook toolbar, allowing an easy alternative for a user to stop receiving a particular e-mail without identifying it as spam for the entire system.

Commercial e-mailers signing up for the system receive regular reports that show how many users tagged their mailings as spam. E-mail senders receive a rating based on receiver feedback, with those getting a low rating finding their mailings blocked from Cloudmark users.

“We realized that one of the big problems not being addressed was legitimate e-mail marketers not getting their mails through,” said Karl Jacob, Cloudmark’s chief executive.

Cloudmark said the system would be initially available to the 600,000 SpamNet users. Internet service providers and Web-based e-mail providers can join the system, but none have signed up so far, leaving the overwhelming majority of e-mail addresses outside the system.

With spam rated at the No. 1 annoyance of Internet users, ISPs have stepped up their efforts to combat spam. Some, such as AOL and Yahoo!, allow members to identify spammers with a spam button. However, e-mail marketers have complained that user indiscriminately hit this button, seeing it as a way to unsubscribe from mailings, too. AOL has said its members use the button 4 million times a day.

According to a study completed last month by Return Path, a company the helps businesses make sure their e-mail gets through, the top ISPs blocked 17 percent of legitimate e-mail in the first half of the year.

Many spam filters work similarly, blocking all e-mail from a sender whose complaints reach a certain threshold. E-mail marketers says this leads to a high number of so-called “false positives,” when legitimate commercial e-mail is unfairly blocked.

This has its costs. According to Ferris Research, false positives cost businesses about $3.5 billion a year.

ISPs are finding themselves at risk of not only angering users by blocking wanted e-mail, but also incurring legal liability.

Last month, a Texas judge slapped a restraining order on AOL in response to a lawsuit from a Web hosting company, C I Host, claiming AOL had unfairly shut out its customers from sending e-mail to AOL members. AOL said the claim was without merit.

Earlier this week, major ISPs like AOL and MSN, some spam filtering companies, and e-mail marketing businesses held a meeting to iron out guidelines to avoid false positives.

Many e-mail marketing companies are taking their own steps to help customers avoid getting swept up in filters. Bigfoot Interactive, for example, offers consulting services to analyze the wording and creative elements of mailings. It also has a monitoring service, which allows marketers to gauge their delivery rates.

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