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Email Service Providers and the Coming Changes

Laura Atkins

Yesterday I talked about how I'm hearing warnings (also featured here on CircleID) of a coming paradigm shift in the email industry. While these changes will affect all senders, Email Service Providers (ESPs) in particular are going to need to change how they interact with both ISPs and their customers.

Currently, ESPs are able to act as "routine conveyers." The traffic going across their network is generated by their customers and the ESP only handles technical issues. Responsible ESPs do enforce standards on their customers and expect mailings to meet certain targets. They monitor complaints and unknown users, they monitor blocks and reputation. If customers get out of line, then the ESP steps in and forces their customer to improve their practices. If the customer refuses, then the ESP disconnects them.

Currently standards for email are mostly dictated by the ISPs. Many ESPs take the stance that if any mail that is not blocked by the ISPs then it is acceptable. But just because a certain customer isn't blocked doesn't mean they're sending mail that is wanted by the recipients.

It seems this reactive approach to customer policing may no longer be enough. In fact, one of the large spam filter providers has recently offered their customers the ability to block mail from all ESPs with a single click. This may become a more common response if the ESPs don't start proactively policing their networks.

Why is this happening? ISPs and filtering companies are seeing increasing percentages of spam coming out of ESP netspace. Current processes for policing customers are extremely reactive and there are many ESPs that are allowing their customers to send measurable percentages of spam. This situation is untenable for the filtering companies or the ISPs and they're sending out warnings that the ESPs need to stop letting so much spam leave their networks.

Unsurprisingly, there are many members of the ESP community that don't like this and think the ISPs are overreacting and being overly mean. They do not think the ISPs or filtering companies should be blocking all an ESPs customers just because some of the customers are sending unwanted mail. Paraphrased, some of the things I've heard include:

  • But we segregate out customers onto separate IPs, why can't they just block the spammers?
  • But we're doing everything we can to police our customers, why can't they just understand that?
  • What more do they expect us to do?
  • How can we stop our customers from spamming? We don't send the mail.

The ISPs don't really care about any of that. They're seeing spam coming from an ESP and they expect the ESP to make it stop. This is it, ESPs, you've now been accepted as full members of the email ecosystem and are now expected to police the traffic coming off your IP space. It is no longer sufficient to segregate customers onto their own IPs and let the ISPs block unwanted mail. ESPs are now expected to do their own policing and their own monitoring.

This isn't anything new. The ISPs went through this with regards to the email their customers were sending 8 years ago or so. There were ISPs that didn't effectively police their user base. Infections, bots, spammers signing up… some ISPs would take spammer money and expect other ISPs to sort out wanted from unwanted (spam from non-spam) traffic. Finally, the non-spammer supporting ISPs got tired of it and started blocking the spammer supporting ISPs.

The widespread blocking caused a large shift in the industry. There was also a lot of Sturm und Drang about how wrong it all was and how legitimate customers were collateral damage. Despite this the message to ISPs was clear: police your networks. Policing networks proactively cost a lot of companies a lot of money as they work out how to identify bad traffic before it left their networks. They had to develop or purchase software to identify the traffic and block or mitigate it.

Now, it's the ESPs turn. Much like happened to the ISPs years ago, the ESPs aren't sure how to react or what they can monitor. Many ESPs do have proactive monitoring in place, but these strategies are failing. Spam is coming off some networks, and the whole network is at risk for blocking, not just the bad customers.

The truth is, though, that ESPs have as much control over their own IP space as ISPs do — and those ISPs are expected to control the amount of spam leaking out their systems. ISPs are starting to expect ESPs, who are now participants in MAAWG and IETF and such, to step up and control the amount of spam leaking out of their systems, too. This is why we're starting to see wider blocking by ISPs and spam filters of ESPs and their customers.

There is a clear opportunity here for smart ESPs to stand out from their peers and competitors. ESPs are being told that things are changing, and how those things are going to change. How is your business going to adapt? What are you going to do to stop your customers from sending spam?

By Laura Atkins, Founding partner of anti-spam consultancy & software firm Word to the Wise
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Related topics: Access Providers, Email, Spam
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