Mercury News covers story of Comcast spamblocking the Well
August 29th, 2006

Elise Ackerman of the Mercury News covers the story of Comcast blocking mail forwarding from the Well:

A decade before Microsoft released the first version of its Internet Explorer browser and nearly a generation before MySpace, The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, otherwise known as The WELL, was the place to be on the Internet.

It was “the Park Place of e-mail addresses,” according to John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and a WELL user.

But to Comcast, e-mails forwarded from The WELL, now owned by Salon.com, are spam. The country’s largest provider of cable and high-speed Internet added The WELL to its e-mail blacklist on Sunday afternoon, blocking e-mails from the renowned online community of about 4,000 members.

Gail Ann Williams, director of communities at Salon.com, said it took a while for The WELL to figure out what was going on. A call to Comcast’s customer service to try to restore the e-mail traffic was directed to a Web site that featured a contest to “tell us your worst technical support story.”

Williams said she was able to get a response from a technician on Tuesday morning only after contacting Comcast’s press office.

A spokeswoman for Comcast said Williams had not correctly entered the e-mail address featured in the recording.

On Tuesday afternoon, e-mail forwarded from The Well was still being blocked by Comcast.

Mitch Bowling, who heads Comcast’s online business, said a significant volume of spam has been coming from The WELL. He said it was the fourth time The WELL has been flagged for forwarding spam. “At this point we need some good faith from this company that they are going to try to get better” at filtering out spam.

“They don’t understand what is going on,” said Williams. “They are not paying attention. I would love to have someone to talk to.”

Williams said she was familiar with one previous incident. That time, she said, the organization got off the blacklist after a member who was also a high-profile journalist contacted Comcast.

“The trend here is extremely problematic,” she said. “It’s only because we have so many notable people at the WELL that we are able to resolve the customers’ problems. It’s really crazy.”

Williams said The WELL applies spam filters to e-mail that its members receive at their accounts on The WELL. But the organization doesn’t see its role as sifting through e-mails that are merely transiting the site, in part because of the risk of deleting e-mail that a member may want to receive.

Bowling said Comcast’s policy is to block IP addresses that repeatedly send messages identified as spam, and that it doesn’t matter that the spam was not created on The WELL.

“We spend a great amount of time trying to effectively protect our customers,” he said. Comcast counts 10 million broadband subscribers in the United States.

Craig Newmark, who started Craigslist.org from an e-mail account at The WELL, suggested that Comcast may want to spend some more resources on customer service. “The problem is that in American corporate culture big companies are usually the ones who talk most about customer service and then deliver the opposite.”

Newmark himself works in customer service at Craigslist.org — not in management.

Danny O’Brien, activist coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group founded by three members of the The WELL, said the incident highlightsthe hazard of using blacklists to fight spam.

“The problem is Internet service providers acting as go-betweens between outgoing e-mail and incoming, and making their own decisions that aren’t clear to their end users,” he said.

O’Brien said a server he set up for a community in Oregon has also recently been blocked by Comcast, with no explanation.

“It’s a real shame that we have such a lack of competition in the broadband market that this can happen,” he said.


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