2002/11/14

Bad Spam Filters

Spam is getting worse and worse. My incoming spam ratio is well over 50% by now. SpamAssassin catches and tags most of it; these are automatically shuttled into a “Spam” folder. About once a week, it takes me 15 seconds to make sure there’s nothing important in there and throw it out.

On the other hand, overzealous system administrators are causing serious damage to the connectivity of the Internet by imposing draconian spam filters. The Joel on Software mailing list is operated by a legitimate email delivery company with strong anti spam policies; it is double-opt-in, of course. Increasingly, emails sent to the mailing list are getting bounced — not tagged — before they even get to the users. In the last half hour, five people tried to sign up, but the confirmation email didn’t even get to them. Apparently my mailing list provider’s IP address is now blacklisted by SpamCop. OK, fair enough. But if you or your ISP is using a spam filter that bounces mail, you’re going to lose stuff that you didn’t want to lose. So don’t do it. Use tagging systems instead — have the spam filter add a tag like “***SPAM***” to the subject line, and let your email client shuttle these off to another folder.

Here’s what I’d like to see: a system that delivers an email for one cent. Nobody has to use it, but if you want to get your messages through, you pay one cent and the system delivers it for you. Every spam filtering system on earth can safely whitelist all email that comes from the one cent server, because no spammer can afford the penny times the 19 million messages they send. I would use it for all my email. You could even give 3/4s of a cent to the recipient as a credit to use for sending their own mail, keeping the 1/4 cent to pay for the servers. Eventually, if it caught on, you wouldn’t need a spam filter: just put all the free email in a suspect folder, and check it once a week in case some old school holdouts insist on sending you email without paying.

About the author.

I'm Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow. More about me.