iCloud’s silent email filtering: What’s the solution?

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Mail, Technology
February 28th, 2013 • 5:12 pm

Macworld has a new column by Dan Moren and Lex Friedman about Apple’s use of “silent email filtering” for iCloud accounts. As John Siracusa notes, this is nothing new. Apple’s silent mail filtering “has been going on since the .Mac days”. But I suppose people need to be reminded from time to time.

As a long-time .Mac/MobileMe/iCloud user, I distinctly remember the time the controversy first erupted. I had switched from my local provider’s e-mail account to my @mac.com as my main e-mail account, and had to switch again when I realized that I couldn’t count on Apple to be transparent about the whole process and let me control whether the e-mail I was receiving was undesirable or not. (Apple’s attitude then is not much different from its attitude today, and not much different from its attitude in other areas as well. It can be summed up as “we know what’s best for you, and we don’t feel you should have any say in it”.)

My solution at the time (back in the 1990s) was to do what I had been thinking about for a while, i.e. to purchase my own domain name and my own web and e-mail hosting with a provider that would not have any non-optional, opaque server-side filtering. That’s what I did, and I have been using my own domain with my own e-mail account(s) ever since.

Unfortunately, it’s not a panacea.

Unless you are willing to spend quite a bit of money on your hosting services, you normally get shared hosting, which means that your domain, with its web site and e-mail accounts, is hosted on a server with hundreds or even thousands of other domains. It’s all transparent for you, but it means that your domain’s IP address is the same as these other domains’ IP address.

And, as far as I can tell, there are a number of spam-fighting systems on the Internet that rely on continually-updated blacklists that block domains based not on their domain name, but on their domain’s IP address. This means that, if your domain happens to be hosted on a server that also hosts a domain that is guilty of spamming, this might cause the entire server and all the domains it hosts — including yours — to be flagged as suspicious by some systems.

Even though my current provider is, as far as I can tell, a reputable one, and I have been quite satisfied with the reliability and affordability of the service, this particular problem has happened to me on more than one occasion over the years. Typically, it does not cause my domain and its e-mail accounts to be flagged as spam and blocked by all e-mail servers worldwide, but it just takes one slightly overzealous server somewhere, relying on a blacklist that might not be updated as regularly or as reliably as other blacklists, to cause my e-mail to become undeliverable for those of my recipients that rely on that particular server.

When this happens, the e-mails don’t necessarily bounce back to you. Sometimes they simply disappear in the ether, with no indication that they were not delivered. And even if they bounce back to you, it might take several days for this to happen, which can be quite problematic for time-sensitive correspondence.

It’s actually happening to me right now. None of the e-mails that I have been sending from my @latext.com domain to a friend in France using the 9online.fr Internet access provider for the past several weeks have reached him, and they have not bounced back to me either. They are simply gone without a trace.

As far as I can tell, he’s the only recipient who’s been having this problem lately, so I can only assume it’s because 9online.fr has an overzealous spam filter that has someone flagged my domain as a source of spam. But what can either of us do about it? Not much. I suggested that he try and call them to discuss the issue, but with today’s tech support services being the way they are, we all know how time-consuming such a process can be, with no guarantee of any results. It’s just easier, for now, for me to use a different e-mail account to correspond with him, and hope that the problem will somehow disappear by itself over time.

Last month, I had a similar problem with my employer (I work from home), however, and that was much more problematic. In that case, the e-mails were bouncing back, but it still took us a few days to notice that there was a problem, and still a few more days to get my employer’s tech people to acknowledge the problem and eventually fix it.

During that time, no other correspondents had any problem receiving my e-mails. It only affected that one particular server, but it was the main server for my employer. (In fact, my employer also uses another server with a different domain, and this one was not affected at all, so I had no problems corresponding with some of my colleagues.)

When, like me, you work from home, with sometimes tight deadlines, it can be quite problematic to have such a issue happen to you all of a sudden, out of the blue, without warning, and with symptoms that only become visible after a few days.

But I am not sure that there is much that I can do about it. I could explore “industrial-strength e-mail” options with a dedicated server, but such options are probably priced way out of my range.

I guess the bottom line here is that, even if you switch away from a service such as Apple’s iCloud and its silent mail filtering and purchase your own domain with your own e-mail hosting, that does not mean that your e-mail life will be trouble-free. If my own experience is any indication, you will still have to deal with overzealous spam filters and occasional collateral blacklisting. This makes it hard to rely entirely on e-mail as your primary form of communication, no matter how convenient and useful it is in other respects.

That is why I was advocating for some kind of universal automatic mechanism for acknowledging receipt of e-mails several years ago, and my views haven’t really changed. Unlike direct, live communication over the phone, e-mail might never be 100% reliable (at least in terms of knowing for sure that your recipient has received your message), and so we need some kind of backup system to bring it closer to that elusive goal.

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