The Mystery of the Bounced E-mails Solved: The ISP Filtered It

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Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman, the husband and wife owners of the Oakmont, Pennsylvania's Mystery Lovers Bookshop, are veteran e-newsletter publishers. They understand that, when mailing out an e-newsletter, bounced e-mails are part of the game. The reasons for undeliverables are numerous: addresses change constantly, Internet Service Providers [ISPs] and the Internet can be unreliable, e-mail addresses are often written down wrong, etcetera. One reason that never occurred to them was an ISP bouncing their e-mails on purpose. Unfortunately, one month ago, Goldman and Gorman were shocked to discover that at least one ISP was doing exactly that.

Sirius Systems Group, an ISP based in Lawton, Oklahoma, filtered out Mystery Lovers Bookshop's e-mails because the bookstore's domain name,, was deemed obscene by Sirius' filtering program, according to Goldman. "[Sirius] filters [out e-mails with] message lines and incoming e-mail addresses containing stuff not found in family newsletters," he explained. "[The word] 'lover' happened to be one of them."

Goldman found out through mystery writer Eve K. Sandstrom that Sirius Systems was filtering its e-mails. Goldman said that e-mail communications with Sandstrom had always been problematic. "We'd reply [to Sandstrom], and it would bounce," he said. Then, about a month ago, Gorman was attempting an e-mail conversation with the author, and her outgoing e-mails to Sandstrom kept bouncing. At that point, Gorman wondered if there was more to the problem than an unreliable ISP or Internet connection.

"Mary Alice ended up calling Eve," recalled Goldman. "And Eve called her ISP [to report the problem]." After Sandstrom explained the problem in detail, a rep at Sirius Systems explained that, in fact, there was no problem -- the company filtered Gorman's e-mails on purpose because the word 'lover' was in the domain name. Goldman added that, aside from Sandstrom, he has also received complaints from people "that their browser wouldn't let them go to our [Web] site,", for similar reasons.

In the July 1 edition of the Mystery Lover's weekly e-newsletter, Goldman and Gorman wrote: "Both as a business and as staunch believers in civil liberties we find this whole practice [of filtering] offensive." Making matters worse, Goldman told BTW, the user has no idea that it's even happening. "The user is not in control, you don't get to choose [whether to filter or not]," he said, adding that, if a user wishes to receive legal, adult-oriented e-mails, the choice should be up to the user -- not the ISP. "I understand the ISP is doing it as a service, but it's not clearly disclosed to the customer. I have no problem with filtering if it is applied by the user -- it's under your control."

According to Goldman, Sirius Systems has no plans to stop the practice, and he is unsure as to how he may counter the problem in the future. "Truthfully, I have thought about changing the e-mail address," he said. "But then we would have to create a new domain just for e-mailing."

Goldman said he does not have a clear idea as to how many other ISPs practice similar types of filtering, though he knows of one author who faced similar filtering issues when sending out an e-newsletter that had the word "nudity" contained in the text. "So, clearly, there are others doing it," he concluded.

Phone calls to the Sirius Systems Group were not returned. --David Grogan