Langa Letter: Message In A Bottle - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Message In A Bottle

Hidden or undisclosed ISP policies put your E-mail at risk. Here's what you can do about it.

Arbitrary Blocking Of All E-Mail
Even if you play by the ISP's rules and use their servers for outbound E-mail, you may still run afoul of other arbitrary, ISP-created problems, as IT consultant Bradford Link discovered:

"I needed to establish a laptop dial-up account for a client who normally uses a T1 Connection to the Internet through his company. I chose AT&T, thinking, 'This will work well; you can have dial up access in just about every city you travel to.' I set up the account and his E-mail [so he could] check mail from his corporate address and send it using AT&T's SMTP Servers. Everything worked great until I tried to send an E-mail. It would not go. So, after doing my own troubleshooting and downloading all relevant documentation from AT&T's site on setup (it's not that difficult, I've done it a lot) I gave up and called AT&T.

I was told: 'This is a new account. Your SMTP port is blocked for 30 days.' What this boils down to is that you can't send E-mail for 30 days! I was told this by two tech-support people. When I called to cancel the account (because at this point it was useless to my client, who was going out of town the next day), the customer rep seemed to have no idea this was the case. She checked with another tech-support person who verified [it]. Apparently this is to stop people from signing up, spamming, and then dropping the account. Well, now we are all being punished for spammers' activities."

Web-Based E-Mail No Better
If you're thinking, "No problem. I'll just use a Web-based E-mail service and avoid these issues," think again. Web-based services, such as Hotmail, have been the target of repeated security breaches; Juno and other free E-mail services are starting to require that you let them use your excess CPU cycles for their own purposes (see Peer-To-Peer's Dark Side). Others are simply changing their terms of service in harsh and severely limiting ways, as reader Chris Jones reports:

"Looks like Bigfoot has recently turned their 'free E-mail forwarding for life' into a 'free E-mail forwarding for life unless you get more than 25 E-mails a day' service, all without informing their users.

I'm a Bigfoot user myself, but I had to read about it on [a news site]. Grr. So anyone who uses Bigfoot should watch out--I guess anything over the 25-per-day limit gets trash-binned without being passed on, which could be very mystifying and irritating."

All the above illustrates the simple truth that ISP-and Web-based E-mail is not a highly reliable form of communication. Outages, user-hostile policy decisions, and well-intentioned but constraining policies (such as wholesale port blocking) all can conspire to prevent you from being able to send or receive E-mail. And, as the Bigfoot example shows, even if your service works fine today, the service provider can change the terms of service tomorrow.

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