IronPort, MS team on Hotmail, MSN antispam effort

Microsoft has teamed up with messaging appliance vendor IronPort Systems to bring new antispam capabilities for users of Microsoft's Hotmail.com and MSN.com e-mail services.

Under the deal announced Wednesday, Microsoft will allow vendors that are registered and preapproved in IronPort's Bonded Sender program to send e-mails to Hotmail and MSN users without the messages being subject to normal Hotmail or MSN antispam controls. Recipients can then choose to receive e-mails from the bonded senders by opting in for the commercial e-mail.

Bonded Sender is an IronPort program that identifies legitimate commercial e-mail senders that have put up a financial bond and adhere to rules about how they will send mail to recipients, according to Tom Gillis, a senior vice president of worldwide marketing at San Bruno, Calif.-based IronPort. The problem the program addresses, he said, is that spam filters have been getting more aggressive, often leading to legitimate commercial e-mail being deleted when it is falsely identified as spam. The bonds range from US$500 to tens of thousands of dollars and are subject to seizure if the senders violate program rules. Senders pay to make the service work, so there is no cost to Microsoft or e-mail recipients.

Under the deal, Microsoft will allow commercial e-mails to flow from the approximately 50 bonded senders in the program so far to its 170 million active Hotmail and 2 million MSN users who choose to opt in and receive the e-mail. That gives the senders a clear path to e-mail boxes to deliver their messages.

Search engine vendor Google Inc. is one of the existing bonded senders. It uses the service to help deliver its newsletters and other e-mails that recipients sign up for without fearing that the mail will be deleted by spam filters, Gillis said.

Microsoft is the latest of about 28,000 Internet service providers, universities and corporations that have signed up to receive bonded sender mail, he said. Microsoft has been testing the program for about five months. "They wanted to make sure that it was rock-solid," Gillis said. "We've been able to pass that test."

George Webb, group business manager of antispam technology and strategy at Microsoft, said IronPort's bonded sender program essentially creates a third-party safe-mail list that can help e-mail recipients get the messages they want. "We think that's a promising development," Webb said.

E-mail senders who want to join the bonded sender program must undergo a certification process by Truste, a San Francisco-based privacy group that has certified some 1,300 Web sites as meeting its privacy requirements. Up to one-third of applicants are turned away because they can't meet the group's standards regarding how they obtain e-mail addresses and whether they have prior business relationships with e-mail recipients, said Fran Maier, executive director of Truste.

For e-mail recipients, the program means "these senders have gone through a lot of hurdles and will have to continue to meet the policies," said Webb. And by allowing bonded-sender mail to go through uninterrupted, Microsoft can tighten its existing Brightmail antispam controls on actual spam, further reducing false positives, he said.

As more bonded senders join the program, Webb said he believes the approach will take off. "I'm not concerned about the small number of users," he said. "We think that over time, that as more senders join this, the ecosystem improves. It's a relatively new phenomenon, and we think it has a lot of promise for the long run."

Analysts said the program has promise to help legitimate e-mail senders get their messages across while shielding recipients from true junk mail.

"I think it is a really good first step that Microsoft is moving forward with this," said David Daniels, an analyst at New York-based Jupitermedia Corp. "It really represents the first major ISP or receiver of mail to signal that the reputation of the sender of the mail is as important as their identity."

A major problem for commercial e-mail senders today is that existing antispam filters throw out about 15 percent to 25 percent of legitimate e-mails, Daniels said, which costs them millions of dollars. "It would be like Lands' End printing up a catalog and throwing out 20 percent of them before they got to the post office."

Matt Cain, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said the program works only "using the premise that users want to get opt-in mail."

"This program will let legitimate commercial e-mail pass through," he said. "Assuming people want to get legitimate commercial e-mail, there's going to be fewer false positives."

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