Net Neutrality? Not at MSN!

Such an innocent desire. I needed to send out an important story, all written and ready for a trip into cyberspace, spinning around hard drives, skipping over microwaves and bouncing through router after router to its destination.

Since I was out of the office and too rural for broadband, I subscribed to MSN’s dialer service to get the deed done. Can you imagine my e-mail’s indignation when it was refused passage out of MSN’s e-mail relayer?

What does that mean? I can’t send e-mail with the MSN dialer and Outlook unless my e-mail address is either [email protected] or [email protected] because MSN employs Email Address Restriction (EAR).

To understand how this happens, first a little background in how e-mail works.
Any e-mail program like Outlook, Eudora, etc., uses a part of your IP address called a port and a protocol called SMTP . We will use Outlook in the examples but for the most part, they all work the same way.

Each Internet address has more than 65,000 different sub-addresses. This allows communication to occur for various programs, like Web surfing, file sharing and, yes, e-mail. Port 25 is the port that all e-mail uses.

In the early days of the Internet, control was non-existent and all ports were open. No one knew what a firewall was because back then there was no fire.

Then came various exploits, and ISPs had to clamp down on activities, especially spam. Most ISPs now have what is known as Port 25 blocking, which prevents outgoing e-mail sent from Outlook to talk directly to your e-mail server.

There are some exceptions to this, most notably AOL, which uses Port 587 and a more sophisticated e-mail protocol called IMAP . But for most part, Port 25 is the gate between your PC and the Internet.

By blocking Port 25, ISPs can look at each e-mail and scan for viruses and evaluate the number of e-mails coming and going in order to prevent spam. Of course, at that point, they can do anything else they want with your e-mail and most of us agree to that when we sign up for the service.

So, to stave off the flood of e-mail, we give up some privacy and we monkey around with settings in Outlook and get our e-mail out. Some ISP examples of Port 25 blockers are MSN, EarthLink, Comcast, Optimum Online and Net Zero.

Enter MSN, which now employs another filter: you have to use an e-mail address on MSN’s server, such as [email protected] or [email protected] That is akin to having to use their search engine when you surf the net and get the results that they want you to see.

Whatever happened to free access to e-mail, one of the foundations of the Internet?

Katie Smith-Adair from MSN said the official reason for filtering e-mail addresses is for my security. The technical reality, however, is that using [email protected] versus [email protected] is no more or less secure.

When MSN is filtering every outgoing e-mail via its Port 25 filter, it is also checking the address to make sure it is a Microsoft e-mail address. If it isn’t, then the message isn’t forwarded.

If it isn’t for security, then why bother with the additional filtering? Revenue. For each e-mail that goes out, MSN and Hotmail both add a tagline to the bottom of all e-mail. So even after paying a premium for MSN, you still have to advertise their products to all of your e-mail recipients.

I can understand this for a sponsored e-mail, like Yahoo. But when I am paying for e-mail, I don’t want to inundate people with advertisements. And if I am paying for access to the Internet, I want access to the entire Internet.

So, could this be a net neutrality issue?

Yes, said Art Brodsky, communications director at Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest advocacy organization.

“The FCC’s net neutrality principles give consumers the right to ‘run applications and use services of their choice’ and to access ‘lawful Internet content’ of their choice,” Brodsky said. “To the extent that MSN or other ISPs are interfering with those consumer rights, they violate the principles.”

The question, Brodsky said, is what can be done about it since the “principles aren’t enforceable, and services such as MSN aren’t under the jurisdiction of the FCC.” Brodsky added that access to the Internet isn’t limited to the Web, but also extends to e-mail access.

Most ISPs comply with net neutrality guidelines and do not take “security” to the same extreme as MSN.

“We don’t monitor the e-mail addresses that our customers use,” said Maureen Huff, director of Corporate Communications at Time Warner cable, provider of the company’s RoadRunner online service. Since the company actively markets EarthLink and AOL, that would seem an obvious choice, but Time Warner could restrict users and allow only those affiliated e-mail addresses. It doesn’t.

“It is the user’s choice,” Huff said, which is the way things should be. Most other ISPs agree with Time Warner and don’t block private third-party e-mail addresses.

As more and more individuals and business leave their original default e-mail providers and set themselves up as [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected], the need for net neutrality to extend to e-mail increases.

If we give up this right, and ISPs find another source of revenue in restricting e-mail access, they could encroach on other freedoms.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t advocate going back to the days of net anarchy. I don’t want a million e-mails in my inbox tomorrow. I know that security and filtering are necessary measures. So let’s make sure we stick with the necessary measures and not let companies, under the guise of safety and security, pull the wool over our heads.

Let’s leave that to the government.

Gene Hirschel is a contributing editor for He has over 25 years of experience in the technology industry, including systems management, network administration, capacity planning and data center design. He can be reached at [email protected]

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