Spam Sentries Shoot First And Ask Questions Later

Yesterday, my friend Lee Fang suggested that Yahoo may have been censoring e-mails about the Occupy Wall Street protests, noting that his e-mails that included the URL were blocked from being sent. To support his theory, Fang experimented with sending e-mails containing the URLs for the websites of right-wing activist groups like Americans For Prosperity and the Tea Party Patriots. He was able to send e-mails that included both of their URLs, leading him to call his blocked e-mails “apparent censorship.”

Julian Sanchez thought this didn’t sound plausible, reasoning that it was more likely the URL somehow got flagged into Yahoo’s spam filter and e-mails with it fell victim to “Yahoo’s algorithmic overkill.” I agree with Sanchez that this is the more likely scenario.

I’m currently taking a class at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management on managing online campaigns. Two weeks ago we discussed e-mail list management and one of the cautionary points expressed by my professor was that you had to be careful about your e-mails getting flagged as spam. Here are my notes on the subject:

Spam isn’t a legal problem. It’s a delivery problem. This only applies to the US. Many different rules in different countries. Every ISP has different laws. These ISPs are dealing with billion of spam every day, so they shoot first and ask questions later. When you get spam blocked, you don’t get a bounce, you just get blocked. You know by looking at your open rates and seeing the disparity between different ISPs. 

 If you get blocked, they will throttle you. Use reputable email vendors because they can usually deal with it themselves. This is why you want everyone to be opt-in because they ISPs will be easier for you. 

Spam filters, which I think we’re all generally happy to have protecting us, are just a fact of life in e-mail activism. For class, we had to read Madeline Stanionis’s book on e-mail fundraising. She too noted that getting caught in spam programs happens.

Indeed, Yahoo’s responses on Twitter indicate that this is what happened. I understand that temptation to see nefariousness at play when any kind of political speech gets impeded. But sometimes its just an unfortunate case of a rigid technological system coming up with a false positive. As Sanchez suggests, this has other implications. But foul smelling situations don’t always mean foul play.

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