Hard News by Russell Brown


Spammer until proven innocent

My column in the current Listener is about how badly the outsourcing of such key services as email by Xtra has backfired not only on Telecom but on its customers. Yesterday, I was contacted by John Kershaw, who runs Webstream, a small ISP and hosting company. His story emphasises just what a shambles it has become.

It's messed up both ways. Take the example of one of John's customers, a financial services company for whom Webstream handles site hosting and a mail server. I'll let John explain:

Their mail server is in our Auckland data centre, has a proper A and MX record and only handles their mail. They use us for site hosting and mail management and TelstraClear for connectivity.

These guys are not bulk mailers, but they do send out regular opt-in newsletters and financial updates. ALL their mail to Xtra customers (Yahoo Aus servers) now ends up in the end-user’s spam box automatically. Many non-technical users are not even aware their mail is being blocked. They call the customer and say ‘Your email has not arrived’. If we presume Xtra servers do a reverse DNS lookup, the headers will match the DNS entry. Mail is delivered OK to customers on ClearNet, Orcon etc.

The issue here is that perfectly legitimate mail is being trapped by over-zealous Xtra spam filters and the customer has to go cap-in-hand to Xtra, fill in a very intrusive, arrogant and lengthy ‘request’ form to seek permission to have their mail delivered. This is the instance that really got me upset.

John also forwarded me a copy of the request form, which goes not to Xtra, but to Yahoo, in Australia, where Xtra's email is now handled. It's a long, demanding document that might be summarised as "tell us a whole lot of things about your business and we'll decide if you're a filthy spammer or not". There is no hint of an apology for what is clearly a serious interruption of business.

The irony here is manifest. Telecom spent years bitching about its IP addresses unfairly ending up on the ORBS spam blacklists, and complaining about how difficult it was to get off the lists. And now it's doing it to other companies, via its offshore corporate partner.

The obvious action for a major New Zealand ISP made aware that it is unreasonably blocking emails from a New Zealand business would be to have someone get on the phone and discuss it. But Xtra can't do that any more. And John's customer is basically on the same footing as some Estonian spamhaus.

But wait! There's more!

We’ve had several people (not our customers) call our support desk to say that they are Xtra customers and they are having trouble with bounced mail to the email addresses of one of our customers, a legal association. In this case, the association uses us for site hosting and mail management with Xtra for connectivity. The Association’s MX record resides with us.

Our mail servers receive all their domain mail and forwards it to two Xtra mail box accounts as per our customer’s instructions. All this used to work perfectly, but now, mail from Xtra users to the Association appears to bounce in many cases, even though both the sender and recipient are on the Xtra network.

Now I’m not saying spam and reverse DNS are a bad thing – we use them ourselves, but since the swap to Yahoo, we’ve had a 200% increase in the number of support calls from customers and outsiders due to missing or returned mail, especially where mail forwarding is in place via a third party server. It also appears that Xtra support staff are giving conflicting advice, ranging from the attachment you saw yesterday, to ‘not us’ etc.

At the same time, of course, I'm getting email from Xtra customers complaining that they're being flooded with porn spam the Yahoo filters aren't catching.

Meanwhile, some new Vodafone at Home kit turned up at the door while I was tidying the kitchen and preparing dinner on Tuesday. Leo, typically, started to tear open the boxes, and I told him he could so long as he read the instructions and put it all together. Which he did -- and it worked!

The service is quite attractive on the face of it. The cost is $39.95 monthly, with free local calls and free national calling to landline. Calls to Vodafone mobiles at 39 cents a minute and other mobiles at 55 cents a minute. (So where's the calls-to-mobile bundle?)

Would I use this as my principal line? I'm not sure. The call quality seems a bit squawky, and certainly isn't a patch on my bangin' Ihug digital phone, which runs over the Wired Country connection.

Meanwhile, the Beijng Olympics just got even more important for TVNZ, which has secured interactive rights: meaning the Games will not only be the hook for next year's HDTV service on Freeview, but also the focus of what will presumably be TVNZ's most substantial online news project yet. It also means that TVNZ will be covering the full screen range -- from mobile to widescreen HD -- which may provide some interesting challenges.

And, finally, Marc Ellis' new internet venture, Mintshot, seems to be targeted at people able to place a very low value on their time. Users register, watch TV ads, answer trivial questions on those ads and win "mintshot dollars" which they may then use to bid in auctions for various items; a handful of which are of high value. But mintshot dollar balances are zeroed every month, and the auction periods for the high-value items run across those refreshes. It all looks rather wearying. Someone will win the big prizes, but it won't be you, it'll be some munter prepared to watch a million ads and play innumerable games of tic-tac-toe. (And Marc and his "good bugger" mates reserve the right to cancel your balance and kick you off "without cause or reason".) It's all good fun for compers, but I'm not really sure that people who can't afford to buy stuff in the first place are a premium advertising audience.

PS: Remember the news story about the exemption for government departments from the Electoral Finance Act on which the Herald based its "Democracy Under Attack" promotion on Monday? Er, not so much, as it turns out. And the editorial tone is turning quite pissy about it.

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