One of the major new features in Microsoft’s recently released Outlook Express 5.0 email client is its Junk Mail Filter, which, when turned on, examines incoming messages to determine whether or not you’re likely to want to read those messages. The goal of the Junk Mail Filter is to identify spam, enabling users to avoid time-wasting or even offensive unsolicited commercial email. However, the Junk Mail Filter can produce unwanted results.
Microsoft’s goal with the Junk Mail Filter is laudable – we all want to stamp out spam. Microsoft even took steps to avoid the problems that caused a similar feature in a beta version of the Windows Outlook Express 5.0 to engender a lawsuit from greeting card company Blue Mountain Arts. Unlike that beta Windows version, the Mac version leaves its Junk Mail Filter off by default, marks suspect messages instead of moving messages, and uses different filtering criteria and methods.
Unfortunately, after some research and thought, we feel that even the Mac version’s Junk Mail Filter is problematic for companies using Internet email in legitimate ways. We heard almost immediately from readers that TidBITS was marked as spam by the Junk Mail Filter when its sensitivity slider was left in the default position. Although this behavior concerned us greatly, we were by no means alone, with legitimate email messages from other companies suffering similar electronic branding.
It may seem overly sensitive to quibble over being marked as spam, since users have several ways to override the Junk Mail Filter’s actions after the fact. But on the Internet, business reputation is exceedingly important, and the damage done to a company’s reputation if its email were marked as spam could be significant. We weren’t concerned about our long-time readers being confused, but given Microsoft’s size and industry position, a new subscriber could easily decide to believe Outlook Express’s marking and think that TidBITS was spam. If that person decided to broadcast the information widely on the Internet, or if that person was a decision-maker at an organization or potential sponsor, our efforts to attract new subscribers and sponsors could easily be harmed. Other companies we spoke with had similar concerns.
Since we believed that the Outlook Express designers had acted with good intentions, we contacted them and explained our concerns. After some discussion of the specifics of our situation and the possible effects on us and other email-using companies, Microsoft agreed to do the following:
Issue a public statement (see below) alerting Outlook Express users that the Junk Mail Filter can mark legitimate messages as spam.
"Microsoft is aware that Outlook Express 5 Macintosh Edition’s Junk Mail Filter may identify as suspicious some email messages that a user may want to read. Microsoft is working closely with industry experts to improve the Junk Mail Filter to help people better separate wanted and unwanted messages. For example, we recently learned that the subscription-based TidBITS newsletter was identified as suspicious. To assure that any wanted email, such as the TidBITS newsletter, is not marked by the Junk Mail Filter, please use any one of the following quick and easy solutions:
"1) Add the address of the mailing list to your Address Book
"2) Add the domain name of the Sender (e.g., tidbits.com) to the exception list in the Junk Mail filter
"3) Use the Mailing List Manager to create a Mailing List Rule for that Sender"
Work with us and other industry experts to improve the Junk Mail Filter so it is less likely to mark legitimate messages as spam. We’ve already had some discussions with the Outlook Express team and will continue to do so as necessary.
Investigate ways that other affected companies can learn what it is they’re doing that might cause their mail to be marked as spam. This is not a simple situation, since if Microsoft published the rules used by the Junk Mail Filter, spammers would immediately modify their spam to circumvent it.
Finally, it’s important to note that we are in no way accusing Microsoft of attempting to harm TidBITS or any other company. Although we’re unhappy that this Junk Mail Feature proved problematic for us and others, we’re pleased that Microsoft is responding promptly and appropriately.