America Online said yesterday that it has seen a substantial decline in unsolicited e-mails this year, though some anti-spam experts said the company may be the only Internet provider experiencing such a drop-off.
The average number of so-called spam e-mails that AOL blocked daily dropped from a peak of 2.4 billion in 2003 to 1.2 billion late this year, the Dulles-based company said.
AOL also said the company received 2.2 million spam complaints from its subscribers in November, down from 11 million for the same month a year ago. To register spam complaints, AOL subscribers must click a "report spam" button on their screen rather than simply deleting the offending e-mail.
AOL credited anti-spam legislation, such as the federal Can-Spam law, as well as its own spam-filtering software tools, for the decline.
Nicholas J. Graham, an AOL spokesman, said his company hopes it has made the business of sending unsolicited ads unprofitable for some spammers targeting AOL customers. "Turning around the economic model is something we have sought to do for a really, really long time," he said.
AOL remains the largest Internet service provider, with 29 million subscribers worldwide, although it has lost 2 million subscribers over the past year. The company's current ad campaign emphasizes improved security for online customers, including features such as free antivirus software.
Julian Haight, founder of a spam-reporting service called SpamCop, said AOL's announcement was good news. "At a certain point, it gets more expensive to send these messages than it's worth," he said. "I take hope that this will become more of a global trend."
But an anti-spam expert said AOL's apparent success may not mean that the rest of the Internet is seeing fewer bulk e-mail ads for herbal supplements, pornography and diet pills.
"AOL's spam problem is unlike anybody else's spam problem," said John Levine, chairman of the Anti-Spam Research Group. "There are a lot of spammers who specialize in AOL" because the company has such a large subscriber base, he said.
Levine said some bulk e-mailers may have backed down from assailing AOL subscribers as a result of the company's aggressive legal actions against spammers. In a recent case, AOL worked with authorities throughout an investigation and trial in which a Loudoun County jury found two North Carolina residents guilty on felony charges for flooding the in-boxes of America Online subscribers with unsolicited e-mail.
"AOL is the one recipient that has demonstrated that if you get them annoyed enough, they will call the cops on you and you will go to jail," Levine said.
Other Internet providers reported yesterday that they have not seen much change in the volume of spam traffic on their networks. Brad Diederichs, a senior technician at Severna Park-based Internet provider ToadNet Inc. said, "It has stayed pretty steady, compared to last year's numbers."
Mike Apgar, chairman of Seattle-based Internet provider Speakeasy, reported the same. "We block 800,000 to 900,000 messages a day, and that hasn't changed," he said.
Other Internet providers had complaints about AOL's anti-spam practices. Paul Heller, president and founder of Rockville-based Internet provider Heller Information Services, said via e-mail that AOL's spam filters often shut out legitimate messages sent by subscribers to his company's Internet service.
"AOL's practice of blocking things that are reported as spam by users has indeed blocked a lot of mail, resulting in fewer reports of spam," he said, "but also resulting in the loss of untold numbers of legitimate messages."