AOL Buys Mailblocks to Fight Spam

America Online has snapped up Web-based e-mail company Mailblocks in what company representatives call an effort to bolster its own e-mail services with greater antispam protection, mail management, and interface improvements.

AOL representatives did not specify the terms of the deal, but say the companpy bought privately-held Mailblocks to get its challenge/response technology for fighting spam and authenticating legitimate e-mail senders.

Phasing in Spam-Squashers

The Mailblocks technology works by "whitelisting," or approving, everyone in a user's address book as a legitimate e-mail sender, and challenging any unknown senders. When a user receives an e-mail from an unknown sender, the service holds the mail and sends back an automatically generated message, asking the sender to type in the seven-digit code that they see on the screen. Once the sender enters the code, the message is delivered to the recipient and that sender will not be challenged again. The technology aims to defeat mass-mailer spam and worms generated by computers.

"This technology fits very nicely into our antispam strategy," says Nicholas Graham, an AOL spokesperson.

Graham says the acquisition was final in July, and the Mailblocks team has already moved from its previous headquarters in Los Altos, California to AOL's nearby Mountain View, California campus.

"One of the most appealing and attractive aspects of this acquisition is the fact that Mailblocks has a dedicated and energetic team of engineers," he adds.

AOL plans to make Mailblocks' challenge/response technology available across the AOL service as an option for members who want to use it, both via the "Mail & Spam Controls" menu and for users accessing their mail on the Web, according to the company. The technology will be integrated into the AOL software through a series of phased upgrades.

Some of the Mailblocks user interface and mail management features will be integrated into the AOL services for accessing mail over the Web at AOL.com and Netscape.com later this year, Graham says. In a second phase, AOL will add the challenge/response technology as an option to the AOL e-mail service.

"We realize that challenge/response is not for everyone but we want to give our users a variety of options to fight spam," he says.

Other Efforts

AOL recently came out in support of a new e-mail protocol called Sender Permitted From (SPF) that tries to crack down on spammers by eliminating forged e-mail addresses. Graham says the challenge/response technology complements SPF because they both have the function of "cutting a huge swath out of spam" by challenging the sender.

Mailblocks was founded by the late Phil Goldman, who was also one of the founders of WebTV Networks, and commercially launched in 2003. The company's e-mail service targeted home and small business users, with a basic service priced at $9.95 monthly and a premium service priced at $24.95 yearly, according to the Mailblocks Web site. A free service is also offered, but it is no longer accepting new customers.

Mailblocks offered to cobrand the service with vendors, as well as license the challenge/response technology to enterprise e-mail providers.

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