OF THE NORTHWEST'S big-time new media empires, RealNetworks is the hardest to get a bead on. One day founder and CEO Rob Glaser is being portrayed (in the lead feature of Wired magazine) as a corporate velociraptor fit to compete in the same league as the Gateses, McNeelys, and Bezoses; the next day the company's getting publicly spanked (in Wired's Web-based hot new page, "Rants and Raves") for the subprofessional crime of spamming. Which is the real Real here, the Jekyll or the Hyde? Or both? The facts, as far as they go: RealNetworks claims that more than 60 million people have downloaded one or another version of its RealPlayer software, which allows users to listen to or watch real-time audio and video over the Web. In order to download RealPlayer, you have to fill in a form containing, among other things, your email address. Well, no, that's not quite right: You have to fill in an email address—yours or somebody else's, real or invented.
Now, RealNetworks wants your email address so it can send you mail. A lot of people want a copy of RealPlayer, currently the de facto standard for "streaming" software on the Web, but don't want to get email from RealNetworks. Right on the sign-up form, there's a little box you can check saying you don't want to be on the RealNetworks mailing list. But many people don't trust such "opt-out" boxes because they've learned that when you give your email address to somebody, you're almost certain sooner or later to be sorry you did. So instead of providing truthful information, checking the box, and trusting RealNetworks, they lie, figuring "Tough luck, Glaser: Suck on this."
Trouble is, he does. If the fibber, by design or chance, enters a real email address, the owner of that address gets regular whiny emails signed by Glaser marketing honcho and ex-state legislator Maria Cantwell asking her or him to upgrade to the newest, hottest, fastest, and (after the first free sample) more expensive version of RealPlayer. If the phony address doesn't match a real one, it ends up bouncing around, producing error messages, and generally cluttering things up.
This kind of electronic junk isn't exactly spam—unsolicited commercial bulk email—but it takes up just as much bandwidth per item, and the association of antispam Internet service providers, called MAPS, considers anyone who distributes it to be just as guilty as the jerk who's trying to get rich quick selling suckers herbal Viagra by email. If even a small percentage of the 60 million email addresses in its lists are duds, RealNetworks is capable of creating a real electronic paper chase every time it sends out a solicitation.
When the sender is a company as big and well known as RealNetworks, MAPS retaliates—by putting the company on its RBL (Real-time Black-hole List), which automatically dumps all messages emanating from the offender into electronic limbo. Like somebody who's failed to pay a phone bill, RealNetworks can receive calls but can't call out.
The RBL represents about 40 percent of the country's end-users of email: not enough to shut RealNetworks down, but enough to be acutely embarrassing. The company has talked its way off the RBL at least three times in the past by claiming to be have been misunderstood and promising to do better. On July 12th, it got slammed again, this time, says MAPS' Nick Nicholas, until it cleans up its act once and for all.
What would it take to do that? A simple automated process of the same kind innumerable companies and mailing lists already use to insure against accumulating bad data. When RealNetworks' servers get a download request, they could send a reply to the email address provided, asking the recipient to confirm its receipt with a reply, executable with a single click of the mouse.
Simple enough, you'd think. But according to RealNetworks' vice president Hayworth, too hard for his customers. "We've tested that and the response rate is so low it's impractical," he told Wired's Chris Oakes, adding that it also "risks losing people who actually want to receive product news"—presumably the same folks who write to the Direct Marketing Association pleading for more junk mail.
This time around, both sides seem to be pretty dug in. Last time it got socked with an RBL, Hayworth said that the company was open to "procedural changes" to resolve the conflict. This time around he sloughs off even the possibility that his company might somehow be partially at fault. "The root of the problem," he told Wired, "is people who use fake email addresses."
More on the fight against spam:
The SPAM-L List FAQ