Filters help, but don't expect perfection

Published: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 9:45 p.m.
As using the Internet and e-mail becomes more and more a daily part of many people's lives, users are looking for solutions to deal with a variety of issues, including the use of filters to deal with content, spam and security concerns. The use and sophistication of these filters has grown dramatically in recent years, but for some users, the pendulum may have swung too far toward security, to the point where legitimate activity is more and more often being blocked.
The biggest area of filter use, and potentially growing overkill, is with e-mail. Spam has become an epidemic glut in many people's mailboxes, and most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have instituted increasingly aggressive spam filtering in response to user complaints about junk e-mail. I recently surveyed a Yahoo! mail account I use for spam and junk mail. I had begun using Yahoo!'s spam filter option some months ago for this account as it received an average of 50-75 junk e-mails per day.
In looking through the "junk" folder for mail I actually wanted to receive, I found that 1%-2% of the mail in folder was what I considered legitimate. Most of it was commercial mail from vendors I wanted to see, and because many people regard this as "junk" and report it as such, it usually gets put in that folder. I also saw computer tech mail and some personal mail from non-commercial sources as well. Yahoo! and other services utilize feedback from users to help decide what's spam, and one person's junk is another's wanted information.
Another type of mail that frequently gets filtered as junk is forwarded mail, as shown by an "Fw" in the subject line. I recently forwarded an e-mail to two accounts, one filtered and one not. The filtered account regarded that mail as spam and never delivered it. AOL's mail filters are often even more aggressive in trying to prevent spam, and I've had to tell more and more AOL users to check their Spam folders for legitimate mail that's been sent.
Parental-control Web content filters have also gotten better, but parents still need to check with their kids about objectionable content. Again, the filters can help, but don't expect perfection. Some "bad" Web sites will still make it onto your child's computer, and some legitimate Web sites will be blocked. As always, direct parental supervision is important.
Perhaps the biggest area of developing filter overkill is in the area of pop-ups. Microsoft's recent Service Pack 2 update for Windows XP changes the default security settings to a more aggressive position and adds additional protections. However, Microsoft's own Web site frequently uses pop-ups and "Active X Controls" to download content and updates to user computers, much of which is now being stopped. Microsoft likely needs to implement a "trust" system for certain Web sites, or the temptation will be to shut off many of the filters, providing the end user with even less protection.
Overall, filter technology has come a long way. But users should be aware that much work still needs to be done to separate the "good" from the "bad" on individual computers.
Tom Meek is a computer and media consultant whose column appears on Mondays in WorkLife. He can be reached at or via His columns also are available at

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