E-Mailer Report Criticizes IronPort's Bonded Sender

E-mail service providers have panned IronPort Systems' Bonded Sender program in an internal industry report, saying it does not treat commercial e-mailers fairly.

The E-mail Service Provider Coalition's vendor relations committee recently completed a report on Bonded Sender. The report, a copy of which was obtained by DM News, details several shortcomings the committee found in a test of the e-mail reputation system that Microsoft has endorsed.

The ESPC said three of its members tested the program with 39 Internet protocol addresses. Some clients saw incremental delivery improvement while others saw none. The report details several areas of concern that it concludes could make Bonded Sender a losing proposition for e-mail marketers.

The report cites Bonded Sender's complaint threshold for triggering the debit of an e-mailer's bond. Under Bonded Sender, commercial e-mailers put up bonds of $500 to $4,000 a month, based on e-mail volume, which are debited when complaints reach 1 per million sent. The report calls the 1-complaint-per-million threshold “unrealistically stringent and neither statistically reliable nor a true indicator of e-mailer performance.”

Though IronPort, San Bruno, CA, has asserted that legitimate e-mailers should rarely have their bonds debited, ESPC mailers exceeded the complaint threshold in 35 percent of the cases.

Tom Gillis, senior vice president of marketing at IronPort, said the company is in discussions with the ESPC over Bonded Sender's complaint threshold, which will be scored against other senders. However, he does not expect major changes to the program.

“What we've accomplished with Bonded Sender is very unique,” he said. “There's no system that comes close to having an impact on delivery as Bonded Sender does.”

Another problem ESPC cited is Bonded Sender's reliance on its SenderBase e-mail reputation system to calculate complaint levels. The ESPC reports that its test indicates widespread inaccuracy in the data. In one instance, SenderBase overestimated the amount of e-mail sent by a factor of 757. For 23 of the 39 IP addresses, SenderBase estimates were more than two times off.

“We will continue to get better data,” Gillis said. “The data that's there, while not perfect, is sufficiently accurate for us to do the job.”

To compare complaint levels, the report looked at reports the IP addresses received from AOL. Bonded Sender and AOL complaint figures were more than 100 times off in the majority of the instances. One IP address received 1,104 AOL complaints to zero from Bonded Sender; another received zero AOL complaints to 775 from Bonded Sender. Overall, the report says 80 percent of the IP addresses had complaint levels more than 10 times of those from AOL.

“One of the concerns many people have is the weighting the complaints are given,” Jupiter Research analyst David Daniels said. “All complaints aren't created equal.”

Gillis said legitimate senders should not need to worry about generating complaints and that concerns about spam vigilantes targeting them amounted to “conspiracy theories.”

“We've got big, successful brand-name marketers running in the program today without issue,” he said.

The ESPC report also complains that Bonded Sender's dispute-resolution process, administered by TRUSTe, is opaque since Bonded Sender does not provide a complaint feedback loop. This “undermines the integrity of the program's complaint resolution process and the ability of Bonded Senders to manage their lists and practices in limiting financial exposure,” the report said.

IronPort is currently in a legal tussle with Scott Richter, accused of being a spammer, over its SpamCop service blacklisting Richter without providing him with a copy of complaints.

Gillis said IronPort would not begin sharing complaint data, which could be used by unscrupulous e-mailers. He said the TRUSTe adjudication process would handle any problems legitimate mailers had.

“There are very clear rules about how the program works,” he said. “If you don't like them, don't participate.”

One Bonded Sender feature that IronPort apparently has changed is its plan to funnel the proceeds of debited bonds to anti-spam groups, which might then have a financial incentive to drive up complaints. Gillis said IronPort would earmark profits for a rotating set of non-spam-related charities, such as the Center for Internet Education.

“All these things are solvable,” Forrester Research analyst Jim Nail said. “But one of the things I hear often, from both e-mailers and ISPs, is they are extremely leery of setting up any one private organization in a position of that kind of power.”

The ESPC report comes as Bonded Sender picks up steam as an e-mail accreditation system. IronPort has 50 e-mail senders enrolled, and it got a big boost last month when Microsoft said it would deploy Bonded Sender for MSN and Hotmail e-mail users. The deployment would bring Bonded Sender to 30 percent of inboxes, Gillis said.

The ESPC itself gave Bonded Sender a boost last fall, when it was tabbed to power the coalition's Project Lumos blueprint for overhauling the e-mail system to include identity and reputation systems. The ESPC report said it “holds serious reservations about Bonded Sender's ability to fulfill identity and reputation in its current form.”

Reputation services generally are thought to be key in solving the spam problem. Microsoft's agreement to merge its Caller-ID for E-mail authentication protocol with SPF (Sender Permitted From) last week was hailed as a major step toward establishing e-mail identity, which is the first step to implementing reputation services.

“I think what we're seeing is IronPort is putting the cart before the horse, saying they've got this fully baked system before the industry can agree on what should be the guts of the system,” Nail said.

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