Apr 052006

At What Price False Positives?

At What Price False Positives?

As has been covered in many places, including Direct and The Wall Street Journal, Verizon settled a lawsuit yesterday over “too aggressive” spam filtering, or what we in the business call false positives — filtering out legitimate, non-spam emails as spam.  This is a huge problem that part of our business at Return Path, our Delivery Assurance Solutions group, has been fighting for years.

The gist of the settlement is that Verizon is changing the way it filters spam to make sure more legitimate mail gets through, and that it is refunding various small amounts of money or free months of service to customers who complained about the problem.

I am NOT a believer in lawsuits like this at all.  Also, I think the act of filtering aggressively enough to catch the spam but not so aggressively as to cause false positives is a very difficult balancing act that most ISPs actively struggle with every day.

So the outcome here is that a bunch of consumers will receive money or refunds or free service ranging from a few dollars up to potentially $100.  The seven class plaintiffs are going to receive $1000 each for their troubles.  Oh and for good measure, the lawyers are asking for $1.4 million in expenses.  Don’t even get me started on that one.

All that said, though, it’s interesting that there’s now some kind of economic cost to false positives on the books.

Nov 102004

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part II

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Part II

Great news for fans of Vonage and other Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) services.  Today, the  The Wall Street Journal (that link may only work for a week or so) reported that FCC Chairman Michael Powell just drove a successful vote to declare VOIP an interstate service, exempt from state regulation and really paving the way for much smoother and broader adoption.

I’ve received a number of comments on my earlier posting which sang the praises of Vonage and VOIP, and apparently not everyone has had the same positive experience as we’ve had with the service.  But it’s still going strong for us!

Sep 222004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

The press conference this past spring where President Bush embarrassingly refused to admit that he had ever made any big mistakes, other than to reiterate his gaffe at trading Sammy Sosa when he owned the Texas Rangers, brings up another issue in this series: is it good for leaders, both political and corporate, to admit mistakes?

On the corporate side, I think the ability to admit a mistake is a must. Again, I’ll refer back to Jim Collins’ books Good to Great and Built to Last, both of which talk about humility and the ability to admit mistakes as a critical component of emotional intelligence, the cornerstone of solid leadership. And in another great work on corporate leadership, The Fifth Discipline, writer Peter Senge talks about “learning systems” and the “learning organization” as far superior companies. My experience echoes this. Publicly admitting a mistake, along with a careful distillation of lessons learned, can go a long way inside a company to strengthening the bond between leader and team, regardless of the size of the company.

But in politics, the stakes are higher and weirder — and the organization is a nation, not a company. Publicly admitting a single mistake can be a leader’s downfall. It’s too easy these days for political opponents to seize on a mistake as a “flip flop” and turn a candidate’s own admission into a highly-charge negative ad.

There was a fantastic op-ed in The Wall Street Journal back on April 15 on this topic, which unfortunately doesn’t have an available link at the moment, entitled “Bush Enters a Political Quandary As He Faces Calls for an Apology.” I’ll try to both quote from and summarize the article here since it’s central to this topic:

“For a politician, is an apology a sign of weakness or strength? That is the debate now swirling around President Bush after a prime-time news conference in which he refused reporters’ invitations to acknowledge any specific mistakes in handling the issue of terrorism or offer an apology to Sept. 11 victims’ families. Mr. Bush deflected the invitation, saying, ‘Here’s what I feel about that: The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.’ Mr. Bush’s quandary is a time-honored struggle for politicians. While some have found a public apology helps them out of a tough spot, others discovered it can fuel more criticism. So far, there isn’t a definitive answer.”

The article goes on to say that while Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” mentality was de rigeur in the Beltway for a while (through Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and Reagan’s poor handling of Beirut), nowadays, apologies are a dreaded last resort. The reason? The rise of partisanship and the use of ethics and congressional or special counsel investigations used to humiliate or defeat political opponents by raising the spectre of corruption. The examples? Gingrich’s struggles in 1996 over his book; Clinton’s ridiculous linguistics machinations (“it depends what the definition of ‘is’ is”) around the Lewinsky scandal; and Lott’s downfall over segregationist comments.

The piece wraps up by saying that “Mr. Bush was backed into the apology quandary by one of his administration’s toughest critics, former White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke…Since then, White House officials have been pressured to do likewise [apologize to victims' families about the government's failings on 9/11] — or explain why they won’t…[but] aides are convinced that admitting error would only embolden Mr. Bush’s critics in the Democratic Party and the news media.”

So the question is: would Bush be better off by saying “Sorry, folks, we thought there were WMD in Iraq, but it turns out we were wrong. And we miscalculated how difficult it would be to win the war, how many troops it would take, and how many lives would be lost. I still feel like it was right for us to go to war there for the following four reasons…”?

I’m not sure about that. He’d certainly be more intellectually honest, and a number of people in intellectual circles would feel better about him as a leader, but my guess is that he thinks it would cost him the election in today’s environment. My conclusion is that today’s system is discouraging politicians from admitting mistakes, and that it will take an exceptionally courageous leader (neither Bush nor Kerry as far as I can tell) to do so.

In the end, while humility appeals to many people in a leader, it’s not for everyone. Fortunately for us, CEOs don’t have to run for office and most CEOs don’t have to face some the same level of public, personally competitive, and media scrutiny that politicians do. Now that’s an interesting conclusion that I didn’t intend at the beginning of the post — being a good political leader and being a good politician are sometimes deeply at odds with each other.

Next up in the series: Not sure! Any ideas? Please comment on the blog site or by emailing me.

Aug 052004

Challenge Response: Oy!

I don’t think the news about AOL buying Mailblocks and its challenge response anti-spam product is such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But it does give me a quick opportunity to rant against challenge/response.

First, I don’t think the world is in danger of mass adoption of challenge/response. Earthlink, which in general has much more sophisticated customers than does AOL, has had a hard time gettings its adoption level of this up to the 7-10% level over a period of at least two years. I think it will be even tougher for AOL. I applaud AOL for trying to do more to help members fight spam, but I don’t think this is the answer.

So onto the rant. Challenge/response is a pretty poor solution to spam. Or, rather, I should say it’s an excellent solution to spam with humongous side effects. Some are documented in Pamela Parker’s article in ClickZ about this, but my top three issues are:

1. Challenge/response effectively eliminates everything other than personal email from people who like you. In other words, no emails from people like Fred who don’t have time to respond or work offline, no newsletters, no Wall Street Journal email alerts, no Amazon shipping confirmations, no eBay bid responses.

2. The flip side of the previous point is that for publishers and marketers, challenge/response is a nightmare. Manually responding to dozens of emails is hard enough — that is, if the marketer/publisher can find them and respond to them before they “expire.” But when the volume gets into the hundreds or thousands, it becomes a nightmare cost of being a non-spammer.

3. My final pet peeve? David Daniels nailed it in his quote in Pamela’s article — it solves the problem of too much email by tripling the volume of email (one email, one challenge, one response)!

Overall, it’s a crude solution to the problem, and one that I think will be obviated over time.