The Practical Mac

Stop the Email Madness

- 2002.01.15 - Tip Jar

All I wanted to do was use the email address I had used for over five years. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, the answer is yes for some ISPs. If you have not encountered this problem yet, read on. If things don't change, you will.

We recently moved to Kentucky from Atlanta. In Atlanta, I admit that I was spoiled by BigNet DSL service. I ran our own email server, which my wife and I used. All mail sent to the domain that I own went to one "catchall" email account. Our email server periodically collected all of that mail and sorted it into our mailboxes according to address. We used this local server for SMTP as well. The server connected to our ISP's (BigNet) SMTP server every 10 minutes to transfer outgoing mail.

When I moved to London, KY, I found that DSL service was not available in my area (and that there were no plans in that direction) and that cable modems would not be available for at least six months. ISDN was too expensive; satellite service was also a bit pricey and required a Windows PC. In addition, I felt that satellite service would be unreliable, even if it weren't coming through a Windows PC. That left me with only the "least worst choice," to borrow the words of Donald Rumsfeld - dialup.

At this point, I will digress briefly. I have heard countless horror stories about DSL service and the installation thereof. However, I should note that my DSL installation went smoothly and occurred on schedule. In the 2+ years I had DSL service, I had only one problem. A piece of equipment in the central office died and had to be replaced, knocking out all DSL service in my area for about 6 hours. I commend BigNet for the service I received and will definitely miss them. But back to the story.

Fortunately, we already had an Apple AirPort network at the house in Atlanta. The AirPort base station plugged into a 5-port hub (to accommodate the Windows-based email server and my AirPort-challenged Power Mac 7500). The hub then connected to my D-Link firewall appliance, which in turn connected to the DSL router. With the forced downgrade to dialup service, I certainly did not need the DSL router anymore. With the AirPort base station now connected directly to a phone line and serving as the main point of connection to the Internet, I could put the D-Link firewall away as well.

I knew that the dialup connection would be slower. I found out that we could not go above 33.6 on a dialup from our house. I did not think it would be that slow! Although we got a service plan that allowed unlimited Internet access, I knew that from a practical standpoint we would not have the "always on" connection that DSL allowed (although the AirPort base station has performed flawlessly in maintaining the Internet connection throughout the day).

"Well," I thought, "Things could be worse." Little did I know, I was about to find out just how much worse.

The first day my wife was working at home, she sent four emails. All of them came back as undeliverable. Hmm, must be a configuration issue on our server.

Everything seemed correct. I had entered our ISP's SMTP server in the appropriate field on our email server. For some reason, the messages just weren't "going."

I fiddled with it for over an hour. I used my iBook to connect directly to the ISP via modem and had the same problem. So the issue seemed to be at the ISP and not at our local email server.

Unable to resolve the problem, I called our ISP's technical support. What transpired next can only be described as a twisted and surreal trip through the looking glass.

The call started off innocuously enough. I talked to a real live person in under two minutes and explained the problem. No complaints so far. However, when I received their proposed "solution," I hit the roof.

It seems that all I had to do was change my email address on all messages to our ISP-assigned email.

So all of a sudden I had to change my email address? I purchased and maintained the domain so that we could avoid this very thing. I wanted us to be able to keep the same email address regardless of where or how often we might move (this was long before free email services sprang up).

In addition, Verizon prevented me from using any SMTP server other than theirs. Even worse, the ISP-assigned email address was something like, "123abc9xyz*$?" Now that's certainly easy to remember.

Start using this email address? I politely explained to the nice man that it would be a cold day in the Dominican Republic when I did this.

He said that another option would be to use the ISP email address in the "from" field and put my preferred address in the "reply-to" field. That solution might have been acceptable to me, but for the fact that Entourage does not have a "reply-to" field! There is only one place to put the "from" email address, and it also causes replies to be sent to that address. This shortcoming is also present in a number of other email programs and seems to be more prevalent on the Mac. Outlook Express and Netscape Mail for the PC contain the extra "reply-to" field; on the Mac platform, only Netscape contains the field. Microsoft could be blamed for not adding the "reply-to" field to their Mac products.

However, in this case, I don't think the blame is warranted. All the "reply-to" field would do is to supply a workaround for a problem that should not exist in the first place. The fact that the problem does exist is squarely the fault of ISP's.

The Verizon representative explained to me that this requirement was put in place to curb spam. I explained to him that the way to curb spam is to merely require, like many other ISP's do, that the user authenticate before sending email. Most email programs are capable of doing this. I do not understand, and in fact vehemently dispute, the need to require users to show the ISP email address as the "from" identifier.

Either way, the ISP has a record of who sent the email. Authentication is a much less intrusive manner of achieving the same result. And forcing me to use the ISP mail server? A textbook example of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. If the CIO's of these ISP's were doctors, a conversation with a patient might go something like this:

Patient: Doctor, I don't feel well.
Doctor: What seems to be the problem?
Patient: My little toe has been sore for several days.
Doctor: Let me take a look at it. Hmm....
Patient: How bad is it?
Doctor: Well, you appear to have a slight fracture of the toe, but it is simple enough to treat.
Patient: What is the treatment?
Doctor: We will amputate the leg at the hip. That should fix the problem.

We all think spam is bad and want to curb it. I can appreciate that sentiment, and I agree with it. However, I wish someone would take on junk snail-mail with the same zealousness.

Some days I receive literally dozens of spam messages. Through rules put in place either on my mail server or my email client, many of these go directly to the trash. Many other suspicious messages get the subject line appended with the word, "SPAM." After verifying that these are indeed spam, I delete them. It causes me maybe two minutes of extra work a day.

When I get home and go through my snail-mail, that is another story. I usually have several pieces of junk mail. I have to give each one at least a cursory glance to verify that it is indeed junk. Then I have to throw it away, sometimes filling up my trash can, which I then have to empty. My junk mail, along with that of all my neighbors, is carried to a landfill where it is deposited, taking up space there as well, and having a negative environmental impact. And don't even get me started about all the trees that gave their lives at the beginning of this cycle!

Even more intrusive and offensive than piles of junk mail are those telemarketing calls that always seem to come just as we sit down for dinner. The state of Georgia has put in place a "no call list" where consumers can pay a small fee to get their name on this list to signify that they do not want to receive unsolicited sales calls. If your name is on this list and a company calls you, that company is subject to some fairly harsh punishment. A few other states have started exploring similar programs, but this still represents just a drop in the bucket.

Corporations can clear-cut forests to fill our mailboxes with offers for 10% off at the local department store. Telemarketers can interrupt our evenings with virtual impunity. Yet ISP's bravely attempt to protect us from the scourge of spam.

In truth, they are really only trying to protect themselves. They do not want to get blacklisted for having servers that allow spam relay. I don't blame the ISPs, but the methods some of them choose to employ go far beyond what is required to prevent the problem at hand. I am not going to change my email address or even my email client just to suit my ISP. Instead, I have changed my ISP to one that allows me to use my personal email address and preferred email client. To do otherwise would be to allow the tail to wag the dog, and I refuse to give in.

I actually maintain two ISPs. I use one as a "primary" and the other as a backup, as well as for use when I am traveling (so that my wife can continue to connect at home when I connect while on the road). Both of them allow me to use my own email address and both support the email clients I use. One of them forces me to authenticate before sending mail; the other does not force me to authenticate, but only allows me to send email when I am connected to the Internet via their dialup service.

Both of these are commonsense approaches that do just as much to reduce spam as the draconian measures mentioned earlier, and without having undesired side effects.

I have not intentionally singled out Verizon. They just happened to be the first ISP I signed up with. After my conversation with Verizon, I called some other ISPs and found out they had substantially the same measures in place. Luckily, I did locate some ISP's that took a more balanced approach to this issue.

In addition to being rational about the spam problem, both of my ISPs are Mac- and AirPort-friendly. The two ISP's I use are SurfBest and Volaris. I am not endorsing either of these providers, but I did want to let our readers know that they have worked out well for me.

What do you think this SMTP issue? Have you had similar problems? I would like to know. Just click on my name at the top of the column to send me an email. And while you are sending email, send a message to those "Big Brother" ISPs who would try to dictate the email address and client that you use: Just say "no." LEM

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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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