If you write me from EarthLink, here's why I won't write back

I've got nothing at all against EarthLink, its managers, or its general business reputation. On the contrary: it seems an admirable company.

But I've come to dread getting any email with an @earthlink.net return address, and here's why: If I go to the bother of hitting Ctl-R (in Outlook) and sending a response, I know that I'll then be put to several rounds of further bother, because of EarthLink's annoying and narcissistic (and optional) "challenge-response" anti-spam system.

I previously complained about this in the Atlantic. The system works by keeping a "white list" of approved email senders. If someone writes in from any non-white address, EarthLink's filter bounces back a note to the effect of, "Who the hell are you?" You then have to fill out forms or interpret cryptic characters to prove you're a real person, not an e-bot, so that your message may be granted a writ of certiorari for consideration by the recipient. After the jump, samples of two such messages I have received in the last hour.

I get a lot of mail from people who write in about articles in the magazine or posts on this site. Mail comes in via the "Email" button you see to your right on this screen. If I write back, I do so from one of my normal email accounts. Very rarely is that address already entered on an EarthLink sender's white list. So the resulting cycle is: you write me on EarthLink; I take the time to write back; then Earthlink sends me an annoying message and asks me to do more work (like decoding the text in the box below, taken from an actual Earthlink challenge screen) before it deigns to disturb the sanctity of your inbox.


Why do I consider this narcissistic? Because it assumes that the other person's time and tranquility are more valuable than mine.

Yes, spam is an issue. Yes, my situation is different from some other people's, in that a significant share of email is with "first-time" correspondents who are writing in cold to the magazine, rather than an established group of friends. Still: if someone writes to me without previous "white listing," I don't like having to petition for the privilege to respond.

So, I remain happy to hear from EarthLink users, as from all others. But as a matter of policy I will no longer reply to messages from that domain -- unless you tell me that you've disabled challenge-response!  Samples of what makes me crabby below.

Sample 1:

This is an automatic reply from xxxxx@earthlink.net.
 I apologize for this automatic reply to your email. [Actions speak louder than words.]
I've recently started getting deluged by spam. [You're breaking my heart. Heard of the DEL key?] To control it, I now allow incoming messages only from senders I have approved beforehand. I apologize if we've corresponded before (i.e., you're supposed to be in my address book) and you get this message. Sometimes there is a slip up (which is why machines will never replace people).
Once your email arrives in my "email from unknown senders" box, I will read it and add you to my known senders. You do not need to resend your message. I apologize for this one-time inconvenience. [If this is so, why is this "challenge" message necessary at all?]
You can click the link below to fill out a request to join my known senders list.
Click the link below to fill out the request:

Sample 2:

This is an automatic reply to your email message to YYYYY@earthlink.net
sorry about this but i am trying to block unwanted emails. but, you, somehow, accidentally got blocked. so do as earthlink requests [!!!!] and i will correct the errors of their way. thank you. i look forward to reading your email. [Gee, I'm so honored!]
Click the link below to request that YYYY@earthlink.net allow email from you. [Yeah, and if I do this I have to fill out name and address boxes, and pass the secret decoder test. No thanks!]

PS: I see that someone from the Cambridge Computer Lab in the UK has put it more concisely:  "Effectively, EarthLink customers are dumping their spam filtering costs onto me." Stop the madness now!

PPS: I see that Christopher Breen of MacWorld hates this system even more than I do:

Breaking away from the traditional Q&A format today, I'd like to offer a small piece of advice to Earthlink customers:

Earthlink's spamBlocker is the tool of the devil if it's not configured properly.

He includes specific tips on making this system less annoying, or finding another ISP. EarthLink folk, please listen up!

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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