Excommunicated: AOL blocks Pope mail

When Charlottesville resident Keith Rosenfeld forwarded a link to a humorous article titled "Pope on a Pogo Stick" to a friend of his, he figured his buddy would get a good laugh. Instead, Rosenfeld got an automated response from AOL that has him hopping mad.

"The following recipient(s) could not be reached..." read the error response Rosenfeld received. "...The URL contained in your email to AOL members has generated a high volume of complaints...."

Rosenfeld says he was baffled.

The URL was for a legitimate news story– posted on the Reuters site– about a planned UK cartoon show called Popetown, in which the Pope is presented as a "puerile preacher on a pogo stick."

The article cites the uproar the show has generated abroad, including 6,000 letters written to the BBC, which planned to air the show, and an anti-show petition bearing 28,000 signatures. Still, Rosenfeld doesn't understand what business an Internet provider has deciding what's too controversial.

After the first bounce-back, Rosenfeld– believing the AOL server was just picking up the URL copied into the message field and treating the mailing as spamre-sent the email, this time with just the text of the pogo stick article copied.

Again, the message came bouncing back.

"It shows they're actually scanning the text of every message," says Rosenfeld.

AOL representatives did not return The Hook's repeated calls, and Rosenfeld wonders how many other messages have been returned to senders because AOL deemed them unsuitable.

A September 2003 press release states that AOL recently increased its spam filtering options, allowing customers to voluntarily increase the threshold for spam screening. As many as 2.4 billion pieces of junk email are screened out each day, according the release. Nowhere in the release– or elsewhere on the corporate website– does AOL state that it screens messages for content, as Rosenfeld fears.

Wallace Gibson, owner of Gibson Management Group, says she's used AOL for years and has been totally satisfied with the service. In fact, she says the company's vigorous screening of spam is one of the best perks.

"I don't get any more Viagra or penis advertisements," says Gibson. "I love it. And I had to block it only one time."

Gibson says she believes the Pope email was blocked because AOL is so vigilant about spam.

"They'd rather err on the side of caution," she explains, saying other companies have similar policies. They're all getting jiggy about this kind of stuff."

Indeed, Mary Youngblood, spokesperson for Internet provider Earthlink, says her company has had to "take drastic measures" to fight the "huge increase" in spam over the last several years.

Those measures include a new optional product, spamBlocker, which allows Earthlink subscribers to decide what level of spam filtering they require. Those who choose a medium or high level of spam protection can have any mail from unknown sources directed into a special folder so that their inboxes don't get clogged.

But, says Youngblood, she can't imagine a circumstance where a news story sent by one person to another would ever be blocked– even if the content were objectionable.

"Our filters don't look at content," she says. Instead, they examine IP addresses, which show where an email was generated. Mail from IP addresses that have been determined to be spam-producers is routinely blocked, Youngblood says.

If a customer had a situation like Rosenfeld's, in which a personal email was bounced back, "We would take it very seriously," she adds.

Michael Burton-Prateley, the intended recipient of Rosenfeld's Pope email, and CEO of an Internet-based logistics company, says he wasn't devastated by not receiving that particular papal mailing. But the idea that other emails might not reach him is frightening.

"If clients are trying to contact me to open an account with me or fix a problem," he says, "I need to know about that."

Fortunately, Burton-Prateley explains, he has a series of checks that allow emails coming to any of his websites to be forwarded to several different accounts.

If AOL was his only source of Internet service, he says, he'd be looking elsewhere. "I wouldn't say I'm happy with it," he says.

As for getting an answer from AOL about why the Pope on a Pogo Stick email bounced back, Burton-Prateley says he wouldn't count on it.

"I wonder," he asks, "if they really care?"

Keith Rosenfeld sent an email that came bouncing back.