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The Need to Know What We're Missing

By Daniel J. Weitzner
September 27, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The Internet is becoming an increasingly filtered medium. At the same time, organizations depend on absolute transparency when it comes to delivery of information in the form of e-mail, Web pages or from other applications. Given the growing reliance on
the Internet for remote work and the increased need for integration with external partners' networks, the transparent enterprise depends on open networks -- both internally and across the entire Internet.
While we think of the Internet as the ultimate open communications platform, it may not be as open as we think. The twin plagues that sometimes threaten to bring the Internet to its knees -- spam and pornography -- may be undermining this openness.
More than a decade ago, Internet architect and civil libertarian John Gilmore famously declared, "The Net interprets censorship and routes around it." Today's Internet is much different.
In response to the scourge of spam, many filters, some of which are largely invisible to enterprises and end users, stand between e-mail senders and recipients. Filtering techniques range from trapping messages with spoofed domain names to content-based filters that use sophisticated machine-learning techniques to spot potential spam ISPs. Other service providers are filtering literally billions of messages per day and dumping them into the digital void. Sometimes this happens under the control of the enterprise, and sometimes it doesn't. The cumulative effect, however, is very hard to assess or manage.
The latest domain authentication technique, known as Sender ID, is somewhat hung up in the standardization process because of possible patent-licensing problems , but it appears likely that some form of sender authentication will be put into place soon.
Client-side filters operate under user or local enterprise control and offer a considerable range of configuration options. Those who use this sort of spam filter have the satisfaction of seeing far fewer prescription drug offers and financial scams, but it's very hard to know whether overfiltering is weeding out messages that we'd actually like to see. Our only options are to turn down the filtering rate and open our in-boxes to more spam, or to actually wade through all mail tagged as spam and manually check for mistakenly filtered messages. Neither option is particularly appealing, so it seems likely that we'll get used to the idea that we are just going to miss valuable messages. Not exactly the model of transparency.
Web content is also increasingly filtered. Enterprise gateways often block URLs that appear on lists identifying sources of pornographic or offensive material. Other sites are blocked because they are identified as sources of harmful spyware.



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