Microsoft Using IronPort's Bonded Sender

Microsoft gave a big endorsement to IronPort yesterday, saying it will deploy the Bonded Sender program for MSN and Hotmail e-mail users.

Bonded Sender is an e-mailer reputation system similar to a credit rating agency, as bulk e-mailers put up a financial bond against their mailing behavior. In return for the ability to bypass spam filters that often block wanted e-mail, participating mailers agree to follow a set of guidelines and have their bond debited if their mailings trigger complaints from end users or violate receivers' rules. Bonds can range from $500 to $4,000 a month, based on e-mail volume.

IronPort, San Bruno, CA, asserts that most commercial e-mailers would see little or no cost to the program beyond the application fee, ranging from $375 to $1,250, and an annual licensing fee of $500 to $10,000.

“We wanted it to be low enough so that anyone could participate, but high enough that a spammer couldn't put it up and lose it,” said IronPort CEO Scott Weiss.

Weiss said it would donate any proceeds from forfeited bonds to anti-spam groups like Spamhaus and TRUSTe.

Microsoft has tested Bonded Sender for the past five months. Its implementation of Bonded Sender across Hotmail and MSN, two of the largest e-mail services, will greatly expand Bonded Sender's reach. IronPort reports it has signed up 28,000 ISPs and other e-mail receivers, including Road Runner. MSN and Hotmail will push Bonded Sender's reach from 8 percent of in-boxes to nearly 35 percent, Weiss said.

“My expectation is that number is going to go to 50 percent before you can snap your fingers,” he added, as other ISPs follow Microsoft's lead.

Currently, IronPort has 50 e-mail senders enrolled, which Weiss also expects will expand quickly once Microsoft begins to treat bonded mail differently from non-bonded mail.

“Our deliverability has always been high,” said Jordan Ayan, CEO of SubscriberMail, Naperville, IL, an e-mail service provider that has used Bonded Sender since last May. “If we hadn't done this, we definitely would have seen a degradation over the past year.”

SubscriberMail, which sends e-mails on behalf of clients like Apple Computer and the Chicago Bulls, boasts a 97.6 percent delivery rate.

According to e-mail deliverability firm Return Path, New York, 20 percent of requested commercial e-mail is either blocked or shunted into bulk folders. Jupiter Research pegged the cost to U.S. business for blocked e-mail at $230 million last year.

Bonded Sender works by compiling a list of IP addresses from participating senders. When e-mail is sent, the receiver checks the list and lets through messages from IP addresses on the safe list. The e-mail receiver can use the system to doubly scrutinize bulk e-mail that is not bonded. In the case where a sender reaches a complaint threshold, TRUSTe will adjudicate whether the bond should be debited and how much.

“This program is not priced to make money,” Weiss said. “It's priced to solve a problem.”

Reputation services, like those offered by IronPort and Cloudmark, are generally thought to be key in solving the spam problem. Experts say that such systems, working in tandem with sender-authentication systems, could help identify legitimate bulk e-mailers from spammers, who often hide their identity and work on such slim profit margins to make putting up bonds unrealistic.

“It definitely shows the large ISPs validate the concept of reputation, that it's not just the sender's identity,” said Jupiter Research analyst David Daniels. “It should grab the attention of e-mail marketers.”

The top e-mail providers have taken different approaches to solving the twin problems of identity and reputation. Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo have each endorsed separate identity systems. Microsoft champions its own technology, Caller ID, while AOL favors the open-source SPF protocol and Yahoo has deployed its own Domain Keys solution.

“Everybody's waiting to see what's really going to move,” said Jim Nail, an analyst with Forrester Research. “Microsoft adopting something like this is significant movement and an endorsement of Bonded Sender.”

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