AOL & Roadrunner Have Left the Internet!
In a naive and misguided attempt to protect their users form spam AOL and it's subsidiary, Roadrunner, have banned email from systems with dynamic IP addresses and thus have made the spam problem much worse by channeling all of the Internet traffic through narrow and arbitrary chokepoints. This doesn't bode well for companies whose future depends on their ability to understand the Internet
25-Aug-2003Version 2: 2023-03-18 10:09:41

When AOL or a large ISP like their subsidiary Roadrunner does something foolish we all suffer because they stand between us and communicating with their customers. By forcing all email through narrow chokepoints and thwarting innovation they are exacerbating the very problems they are attempting to solve!

We see this same na�vet� in attempts to regulate Voice over IP and thus assuring that telephony remains expensive. This is an unfortunate consequence of forgetting the original purpose of the hidden taxes. We are left with a regulatory regimen that has lost its way and has become the end in itself rather than a means.

AOL is like a large state (within the United States) that demands that text books be dummied down by making demands such as requiring that evolution be taught as a speculative theory rather than a fundamental fact. Just substitute the "theory of gravity" for the "theory of evolution" to understand how corrupting that is. No wonder people have trouble with the concept of the Internet -- it's a complex system that is the result of an evolutionary process. We all suffer when ignorance rules.

So what if Roadrunner and AOL demand that I only send mail through approved mail relays? Don't most people do that anyway?

Reporting-MTA: dns;
Received-From-MTA: dns;rmf19
Arrival-Date: Sat, 23 Aug 2003 17:06:15 -0400
Final-Recipient: rfc822;
Action: failed
Status: 5.7.1
Diagnostic-Code: smtp;
550 5.7.1 Mail Refused - client2.attbi.com_Residential_Range
 - See - 030813d

It's natural and appropriate to view change as disruptive and question it. The power of the Internet comes from the ability to experiment with new ideas and approaches. Most will fail but when something works we can adopt it and gain the benefits.

But this is a process and just because something seems wonderful doesn't mean we can stop. Email is a case in point. When I first started using email in the 1960's it was the domain of techies. It wasn't until 1995 that it became normal for people to use email. Twenty five years isn't bad for a major change and certainly it is faster than the forty years it took to replace telephone dials with keypads.

Now that everyone is using email we find the process repeating itself and the email system cobbled together while we experimented�Simple Mail Transport Protocol�has achieved the status of incumbency and it is hard for people to imagine how it could be any different. That's a very naive attitude when we are dealing with a complex ecology like the Internet.

In fact, the sheer volume of email and the need to be able to use email for financial and private transactions requires that we continue to innovate. The problem of spam is really part of the problem of volume but it is a very annoying and emotional issue. Because spam seems to fill up our inboxes it seems as if suddenly all of the capacity of the Internet is being taken up by spam when, in reality, it is our attention that is being burdened. A few thousand spam messages are still smaller than a single video stream.

AOL and Roadrunner's reactions to spam�slamming the door shutdemonstrates a lack of understanding of the Internet. It's not just that they are creating problems for others.

AOL is actually making the problem worse by forcing all messages to be sent through narrow chokepoints.

554- (RTR:BB) The IP address you are using to connect to AOL is a dynamic
554- (residential)
IP address. AOL will not accept future e-mail transactions
554- from this IP address until your ISP removes this IP address from its list
554- of dynamic (residential) IP addresses. For additional information,
554 please visit
Connection closed.

AOL's misunderstandings are, unfortunately all-to-common. We see the same confusion as regulators try to come to grips with the use of the Internet to make telephone calls. Jeff Pulver has been tracking the regulators attempts to look at Voice over IP as if were traditional telephony and burden it with century-old "temporary" work-arounds based on the economics of the early 1900's.

AOL's Go Away message implies that a dynamic address is the same as a residential address. This is naive and wrong. In fact, the IP address is increasingly used more for routing than as an identifier. Static IP addresses are legacies of the early days of the Internet.

More troubling is their assumption that you are supposed to get your ISP to vouch for you or use a commercial email service rather than doing it yourself. This is an echo of the notion that only the government approved post office is allowed to deliver mail. In the US only the Postal Service was allowed to deliver mail�if the letter was inside parcel you still had to put a postal stamp on the box. It was only with the advent of FedEx in the 1970's that the rules were changed. It may still be a federal offense to put a birthday invitation into your neighbor's mailbox.

Even after two hundred years of free speech people still assume that you must first ask permission. This is part of the reason the regulators look at Voice over IP as an attempt to thwart their control rather than an exciting new technology.

Email has largely escaped that kind of regulation but that doesn't keep AOL from treating those who choose to do it themselves as likely outlaws. These are the very people who created the email services in the first place. AOL really does want to kill the goose that has given them their golden egg�the email services which are so central to their business.

In the name of protecting us from SPAM they are thwarting innovative approaches to deal with the problem.

I may seem to be protesting too much but I'm acutely aware of the problem because I have sending email using the SMTP server built into every copy of XP (Pro) because it makes it far easier to manage my messaging. As with much of the Internet ISP email as long as nothing changes. As long as things change slowly we accept the pain associated with the change. Thus when Continental Cable Vision became Media One and then ATTBI and now Comcast millions of people had to change their email address and tell everyone else to update all of the entries in their address book. One of the early attempts to limit spam was to stop any relaying of email. Servers would accept inbound mail only for registered users and would only send mail on behalf of those users. SMTP implementations generally lack authentication procedures because they didn't seem necessary on a benign network.

Instead of implementing an effective authentication procedure the service providers identify the user by the wire they use to connect to the Internet. This works as long as we never change wires. Of course if you're traveling you have to figure out how to send your mail and it is really hard. People accept this because they feel they have no choice.

Before we had PCs we would dial into a central system and rely on that system for services such as email. As we shifted to using PCs we still depended on these central system to act as our proxies for exchanging mail. Before the Internet we would dial the phone number for the particular service provider and authenticate ourselves. With the Internet there is no longer a direct relationships between the wire we use and the particular services. But the business models still assume we have an ISP (Internet Service Provider) rather than simply an access provider. In order to preserve this model we now have to change our settings with the name of the service provider and if we change providers we need to change all of the settings.

The same people who wouldn't even think of managing their own email willingly go through their computers and change their email settings each time they stay at a hotel or use a Wi-Fi Hotspot. One way around this is to bring back the old dial up model in the guise of the VPN (Virtual Private Network) but that's a major step backwards.

Email delivery is very simple. By using the mail delivery program already in most PCs (and Unix Systems) you don't have to change any settings at all when you travel. This is why when Comcast choked during the '03 blackout I simply moved my connection over to Verizon and continued without having to make any other changes! It's that simple! And that's how it's supposed to work. But that's a topic for another essay.

In order to reach AOL users I switched back to the old settings and, in the process, found that I had one program that had been trying to send mail via Comcast while I was connected via Verizon and thus had a hundred letters that I had to resend. This caused the Comcast mail server which was already overburdened and limiting my connections to tell me to go away and come back in 3600 seconds (AKA, an hour).

Unfortunately those who are in the business of selling services rather than connectivity seem to be confused and can't resist meddling and force themselves into the middle. Even if their intentions are noble they doing a lot of damage. They are making the Internet harder to use by frustrating attempts to make it simple and dynamic and by forcing me through these narrow and problematic chokepoints.

They are also infantilizing their users by not even offering them the option of making their own decisions about whether to accept mail directly from me or not.

This is all part of the larger challenge of understanding the Internet and coming to terms with it. AOL's exacerbation of the spam problem is not their only worry. The idea of merging a "Media" company with a tech-savvy company makes a lot of sense. The Internet provides a wonderful transport for all of their content. Instead of being dependent upon a captive transport they can shed the burden of maintaining the transport and can focus on providing services to their customers. Instead they seem to be doing just the opposite�trying to make the Internet more like television with the users being treated as passive and captive participants.

The same story is being played out in telephony. Instead of seeing Voice over IP as the most effective way to deliver "Universal Service" the utility commissions seem to be trying to cripple it in order to pay for outmoded and every expensive legacy telephone services. It's a form of hidden taxation just like the days when it was illegal to compete with the post office which we now understand was really a hidden tax on the economy.

AOL is a dominant player and just like a dominant state (such as Texas) is able to hobble science education because the concept of a dynamic evolving system seems to make people uncomfortable, AOL's attempts to thwart email makes us all poorer and less capable.

The solution is to take control from the edges and that's one of reasons I'm advocating Encrypted IPV6 and want to make it easy for people do their own email. The first step is for people to recognize that they don't have to accept their provider's limitations. Roadrunner and AOL users can choose Verizon or Comcast which seem to be less unenlightened.

Most important is understanding that the power of the Internet comes from separating the transport from the services and giving each of us the option of defining the services ourselves. This is a conceptual change which may take a generation or two but I'm still naively optimistic and trying to make it happen far sooner�maybe in the next few months.