EarthLink Anti-Spam Crusade Hits Roadblock

EarthLink’s plans to implement “Challenge/Response”
technology in its ongoing crusade against e-mail spam have hit a snag with a patent infringement complaint from e-mail service provider Mailblocks.

The Los Altos, Calif.-based Mailblocks claims it owns patents on the “Challenge/Response” technology, which adds a layer of e-mail authentication to eliminate spam from non-human senders. In the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Mailblocks is asking the court to block EarthLink from directly or indirectly infringing on two patents it owns.

The company is also seeking an order directing EarthLink to “destroy any and all copies of software that implement or facilitate the implementation of any of the methods of the (two patents),” according to court documents.

The two patents in question — Patent 6,112,227 (Heiner) and Patent No.
6,199,102 (Cobb) are owned by Mailblocks and its CEO, Phillip Goldman, a
former Microsoft executive who founded WebTV.

The Atlanta-based EarthLink, which plans to test the “Challenge/Response”
technology with its 5 million dial-up and
broadband subscribers, declined comment on the legal proceedings. “We have not received the complaint and cannot comment at this time,” an EarthLink spokesman said Thursday.

If Mailblocks wins an injunction to block EarthLink from launching the
service, it could deal a serious blow to the access provider’s two-pronged
battle against the scourge of spam.

In one phase, the company has gone to court to sue known
spammers and won
a $16 million
judgment Wednesday against “Buffalo Spammer” Howard
Carmack, who was accused of sending more than 825 million unsolicited
e-mails from illegal EarthLink accounts since early 2002.

The second phase of EarthLink’s crusade is its “Challenge/Response” feature, which would effectively block computer-generated e-mails from spammers. The authentication technique auto-replies to an e-mail and asks the sender to manually verify he/she is a live person (the challenge). The user must respond to an embedded code in the form of a word or the description of an image (the response) before the e-mail is delivered.

The technology is set up to automatically recognize future e-mails that
have been cleared with a challenge to ensure that the authentication is not
repeated with every mail.

Mailblocks director of business strategies Ryan Keating told the company hold two patents that cover
“Challenge/Response” and was forced to file the complaint after EarthLink
advertised it would launch its test service.

“We went to great lengths to secure these patents. We’d like to see
companies the size of EarthLink acknowledge that these patents exist and to
be held accountable,” Keating said. “Based on how the product is
advertised, we feel EarthLink could be infringing on our patents. We’re looking to deal with this early before the product is launched and picks up steam,” he added.

Mailblocks has already filed lawsuits against three anti-spam firms
marketing the “Challenge/Response” technology. Suits have been filed
against Seattle-based SpamArrest, DigiPortal and Mail Frontier. All three firms market e-mail service that uses dual authentication to block spam.

Keating said Mailblocks was approached by EarthLink about a month ago to discuss licensing the technology but the negotiations fell apart. “They never mentioned they had their own plans but, two weeks after our talks ended, I got a call from them saying they are coming out with a “Challenge/Response” product. Naturally, we had to file the complaint to protect our patents,” he added.

Mailblocks charges $10 per year for its service, which Keating described as “the closest thing to bulletproof” in the fight against spam.

However, the fact that “Challenge/Response” can block legitimate e-mail sent by non-humans, it’s a sure bet this technology cold draw the ire of online publishers and direct marketers who conduct business via e-mail.

Mailblocks has set up a special “trackers” system that lets through
computer-generated emails (confirmations of Web purchases or newsletter subscriptions) if the user sets up a special address. However, this puts the onus squarely on the consumer to clear certain subscriptions.

If a user forgets a particular newsletter subscription, that publication is never cleared to go though to the inbox, a reality that could hurt the online publishing industry. However, Keating maintains the “tracker” system would let through legitimate computer-generated mail if the user decides on a specific address to handles those subscriptions.

He conceded the “trackers” system puts the onus on the users but noted that all computer-generated mail sits in a pending folder for two weeks to allow the user to sift through and manually approve mail for delivery into
his or her inbox.

Another major barrier to the “Challenge/Response” technology is the
delays it could cause if a user sends an e-mail and steps away and misses the challenge. In such cases, it could be hours before the mail is authenticated and delivered.

Keating said this was a not a major issue for consumers who are looking for foolproof way to eliminate unsolicited mail. But, by adding another layer in the e-mail process, delays and the loss of legitimate mail could prove a tough sell for Mailblocks.

EarthLink is not the first major access provider on the anti-spam
bandwagon. America Online recently teamed up with Microsoft
and Yahoo to “initiate an open
dialogue that will include organizations across this industry to drive
technical standards and industry guidelines that can be adopted regardless of platform.”

The three tech heavyweights plan to focus on protecting consumers from receiving spam by stopping companies which “use deceptive techniques in e-mail headers specifying the e-mail sender, by leveraging existing directories of Internet addresses such as the Domain Name System to better identify the location from which e-mail is originating.”

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