Sunday, August 29, 2010

My boomerangs keep coming back

Australia is a big country, and all kinds of things can go wrong.

My problem, on the contrary, is that my boomerangs keep coming back. I can hear fellow Aussies saying: "That's the whole idea, you silly bugger!" Maybe, but the boomerangs I'm talking about are my emails, sent from France to Australia. Often, some of my emails get bounced by the Antipodes for mysterious reasons (or rather, for no apparent reason whatsoever), and they're sent all the way back here to Gamone, unread by the Australians for whom they were intended.

I first ran into this problem back in 2006, when I was making plans for a visit to Australia. Suddenly, I was alarmed to discover that my emails to my aunt Nancy in Sydney were being rejected by her ISP [Internet service provider] called Big Pond. Fortunately, I had other email contacts with Australia, not to mention the telephone. So, this curious behavior of my aunt's email account didn't cause any serious problems.

Towards the end of that year, however this communication obstacle still existed, which meant that I could no longer send emails at all to my aunt. At my end of the line, I couldn't do anything to correct this anomaly. Big Pond, out in Australia, persisted in believing that I was a spammer, intent upon annoying innocent Aussies such as my aunt. Naturally, I suggested to my aunt that she should simply explain to Big Pond that her nephew in France was not a delinquent spammer. Or, if this failed, she should simply change ISPs. Unfortunately, from a problem-solving viewpoint, giving that sort of advice to my aunt was no more effective than reciting prayers to the Great Internet God.

In those circumstances, I decided to create this blog, which would enable the news from Gamone to get through to my Australian relatives impeccably, in rain, hail or snow. Meanwhile, I discovered that the email account of my sister Susan often behaved in rejection mode.

Today, almost four years later, the problem still exists. If anything, it has worsened. Over the last few days, emails to my cousin Mitchell and my schoolmate Ron have bounced, on totally different servers. I'm starting to think that this rejection of French email by Australian servers is becoming viral…

The funny thing is that this situation doesn't appear to worry people unduly in Australia. My sister Anne informed our friend Ron that the problem existed, but she prefaced my forwarded email with a rhetorical question: Conspiracy theory...? As for Ron, he assured us that it was probably just a matter of his mail box overflowing.

The writing however is clearly on the wall, even if Aussies don't understand it. Terse messages attached to my various emails that have been bounced by Australian ISPs always contain a three-letter acronym: RBL. This is short for Realtime Blackhole List: a list of IP addresses whose owners supposedly fail to stop the proliferation of spam. Really, the term "blackhole" is most appropriate and eloquent, although "Bermuda Triangle" would have been just as good.

Whenever the letters RBL are associated with the refusal to deliver an email, there's no point in talking about William's conspiracy theory, or overflowing mailboxes. These letters merely mean that a brain-damaged Aussie ISP has asked a big faceless firm (either Japanese or American in the cases I've examined) to filter out spammers. And for those firms—Do their employees understand French, enabling them to recognize spam?—almost everything that comes out of France seems to be classified as spam… even when it's sent by the state-owned telecom organization, Orange.

Part of the "blackhole" problem is that Australians are not particularly inclined to complain spontaneously about emails that they haven't received! They imagine that it's my problem, not theirs. (On the other hand, they would certainly be annoyed if their own emails failed to reach me in France… which has surely never been the case.) Besides, when Anne informs Mitchell or Ron that this "blackhole" problem has arisen, she also forwards them a copy of my bounced email. Consequently, it's as if there had never been any problem! So, they're not particularly motivated to do anything at their end of the line… especially if they're influenced by Anne's suggestion that this might be a simple case of paranoia, or by the theme of an overflowing mailbox.

OK, let me now point out a rather obvious way in which this idiotic "blackhole" situation could be causing enormous damage to Australia. First, read the following excellent article, entitled Carrying the torch, concerning the dearth of expected touristic business in the wake of the Olympic Games:

You can probably guess where I'm heading. Over the last four years, my main email contacts in Australia have concerned about ten individuals. And, of them, four have been corrupted by the "blackhole" thing. I remember thinking, at the time of the rugby world cup in France: What would happen if a French tour operator was unable to warn an Australian customer that there were modifications to their booking? Today, it's a fact that countless people plan their vacations through the Internet. Imagine potential French tourists who start sending emails to Australia in the hope of obtaining touristic information, only to find that their requests bounce because of the "blackhole" bug. At a rough guess, I would say that, over the last few years, tens of thousands of touristic requests emailed from France to Australia have probably disappeared forever in this absurd manner. So, it's time that Australians got their act together and made sure that this idiotic "blackhole" obstacle is eradicated. But this probably won't happen. After all, it's Down Under...

BREAKING NEWS: Following my complaint to Trend Micro for "blackholing" an email I sent to my friend Ron in Australia a few days ago [see my comment addressed to Bruce], I received a reply from a member of their Spam Investigations Team. Concerning my current IP, this lady says:

[…] we have seen recent spam activity from it. The first time we saw spam in this IP was in May 2007.

In May 2007, my ISP was Free. I changed to my present ISP, Orange, over a year ago. The Trend Micro reply continues:

Please investigate your network for spamming activity and then fix the issues. When you have done this, contact us again and provide the following information:

1. What caused the problem that allowed spam to come from this machine/server?
2. What did you do to fix the problem?
3. What are you doing to prevent it from happening again?

We need this information to make sure that the problem has been resolved prior to removing the IP.

It's a delightful example of a question of the variety: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" In any case, I don't intend to pursue this ridiculous and time-wasting subject. It's high time for Aussie ISPs and their clients to assume their responsibilities. These ISPs should explain to their clients, first and foremost, why they've relegated the task of spam detection and filtering to a foreign firm based in Tokyo. Is this task beyond the technical expertise of Australian engineers?


  1. William,
    I can certainly understand your plight in cases where you send emails which are rejected by ISP's in Australia. However, it would perhaps be more concerning in cases where you sent emails, assuming they had been received by the intended recipient, but had not been so received as a result of having been blocked by the intended recipient's ISP. Although I cannot offer any explanations as to why BigPond should see cause to reject some of your emails, at least the rejection notice serves to advise the status of your email and you can them take whatever action you deem asppropraite to reach your contact. On a positive note, I am pleased to confirm that your email to former Graftonians on 'Back to the movies' was received by me via my ISP, BigPond on August 26. Thank you for this information. Cheers Bruce

  2. Bruce: Let's understand clearly what is happening.

    — First, any refusal-to-deliver messages I receive have been sent to me, not by the Australian ISPs in question, but by my own French ISP, Orange.

    — Second, it's not exactly the Australian ISP that refuses to deliver my email, but rather the firm they employ to combat spam. In the case of my "blackholed" email to Ron, at Optus (a Singapore company), the actual RBL order came from a firm named Trend Micro, based in Tokyo.

    Using Google, you can obtain a lot of information about the RBL phenomenon in general, and about Trend Micro in particular. Personally, I've never been tempted to look more deeply into this subject, so I don't have any idea concerning the exact reasons why Trend Micro has chosen to blacklist my perfectly banal IP address. This time, I've decided exceptionally to attempt to obtain answers from Trend Micro, so I sent them the following complaint:

    It is absolutely outrageous that an ordinary French customer of France's state-owned telecom operator Orange should be blacklisted when sending emails to Australia. I have contacted the Australian media to inform them of this absurdity... which is no doubt costing Australia a fortune in tourism losses because of "blackholed" requests from potential French customers.

    Before anything can be done, Australians would first need to become concerned about the blatant fact that countless incoming French emails are being dragged into "blackholes" by firms such as Trend Micro. Once they're concerned by this news, if not horrified, Australian customers (for example, in the tourist business) would need to ask their ISPs to inform them if and why incoming emails are in fact disappearing into oblivion in this way.

    It goes without saying that a typical French customer of Orange, finding that his email to Australia has bounced in this way, would normally have little or no idea of what has happened. Meanwhile, tons of requests from potential French visitors to Australia are surely disappearing because of this absurdity.

  3. Very interesting article, William. Does this rejection concern only the e-mails you send from your Orange account or are your Gmail accounts also blacklisted?

  4. Corina: An Aussie server "blackholed" me for the first time back in 2006, when my French ISP was Wanadoo. This stigma continued in 2007 (according to the woman at Trend Micro), when I had moved to Free. And today, using Orange, I'm still being "blackholed" from time to time.

    Normally, I don't use my Google gmail account to contact Australia, so I don't know whether or not it could be affected by this stupid affair, but I don't think so. The three basic ingredients for "blackholing" are (1) a dumb Aussie ISP, (2) a slick Japanese firm, hired by the dumb Aussie ISP with the responsibility of filtering out spam, and (3) an innocent email-sender in an exotic land such as France who dares to attach a couple of photos to a personal email intended for his relatives in Australia. I don't think the slick Japanese firm would be idiotic enough to dare to accuse Google of sending out spam. They can only accuse Wanadoo, Free and Orange because they imagine that the folk who hired them (management of the dumb Aussie ISP) have never heard of these French ISPs.

    Obviously, the Japanese firm has everything to gain (in dollars, that is) if they tell the dumb Aussie ISP that they've blocked all emails from a nasty French spammer named William. Meanwhile, as I pointed out yesterday, the Japanese firm asks me to provide proof that I've ceased sending out spam to Australia.

    This ridiculous problem can only be solved if Australians were to admit that the problem exists... and, up until now, nobody seems to be doing that. They seem to prefer to adopt a "business-as-usual" approach based upon the vague idea that, if the Japanese say that William is a spammer, then maybe he is...

  5. Hi,

    I work for a major French website, we have a mailing list of 600k users, and we also have this issue with Trend Micro spam service. I have contacted them many times, but I always got the same email back:

    This is listed because we have seen recent spam activity from it. We cannot remove the IP until these spam issues are resolved. Please investigate your network for spamming activity and then fix the issues. When you have done this, contact us again and provide the following information:

    1. What caused the problem that allowed spam to come from this machine/server.
    2. What did you do to fix the problem.
    3. What are you doing to prevent it from happening again.

    We need this information to make sure that the problem has been resolved prior to removing the IP.

    I will let you know if I find a way to solve this ridiculous issue.