Following my column on spam in the June 11 issue, I received some interesting mail. There was an e-mail from Diane Allen, executive director of the Infertility Network, a charitable organization in Pickering, Ont., describing how Rogers Communications threatened to cut her Internet service after

receiving a spamming complaint from the recipient of a message Allen sent. There were also several messages touting software and services designed to ensure legitimate bulk e-mails would go through.

This highlights a problem. In the effort to protect Internet users from spam, some false positives are probably inevitable. We may argue about which positives are truly false, but it’s possible to innocently run afoul of spam rules.

Allen says everyone on her distribution list had previous contact with her organization. I think her problem is that while everyone on her list had contacted her, some had done so to donate money or sign up for seminars and didn’t want to keep getting e-mail. She says she puts clear instructions for getting off the mailing list at the start of every message and acts on such requests right away. An opt-in system on her Web site, allowing people to check off a box if they want to get future e-mail, would probably help, but Allen says that’s beyond her limited resources.

It’s sad that a well-intentioned charitable organization has this problem. I hope e-mail recipients and ISPs will be understanding when mailers probably mean well.

Mike Lee, vice-president of strategy and development at Rogers, says the company investigates spam complaints, many of which turn out to be cases of subscribers’ e-mail addresses being spoofed. But if subscribers really are spamming, Rogers will stop them. He says Rogers defines spam by two things: “”You didn’t ask for it, and it’s sent in bulk.””

Chris MacFarlane, vice-president of Internet and transport services at Cogeco, says his company doesn’t usually act on the first spamming complaint, but waits for more. If a pattern emerges, Cogeco goes after the subscriber. Likewise Peter Costanzo, director of service quality and delivery for Bell Canada’s Sympatico, says his company would talk to the subscriber, but “”essentially we have zero tolerance for spam.””

Another concern is an ISP’s spam-blocking sometimes stops legitimate messages. There are services out there designed to help legitimate mass-mailers (that’s what they say) avoid getting caught in anti-spam nets.

One wonders if all their customers are really legitimate, of course, but there can be real problems with spam filters catching legitimate messages — though ISPs say they get relatively few complaints.

Spam and anti-spam tactics are here to stay. If filtering and enforcement mean e-mail marketers must tread carefully, so be it — e-mail wasn’t invented to be a marketing tool. All mailers must try their best not to send unwanted e-mail — if you don’t care that it’s the right thing to do, do it because you’ll get into trouble otherwise. ISPs must protect their customers, but also try not to obstruct legitimate mailers. It’s not always easy.

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