Autoresponder Evils?

Jethro R Binks jethro.binks at
Wed Sep 13 00:07:59 IST 2006

On Tue, 12 Sep 2006, Rick Chadderdon wrote:

> I didn't ask, I complained.  :)  I know what is generally considered to
> be a "sensible" autoresponder, and I don't care much for them, either. 
> I will allow that they are far less annoying than something which will
> spray out unlimited responses, but I've yet to see one configured to
> send out only one response per *domain*.

To do so would be irrational; why should only one sender from AOL or 
Hotmail receive the autoresponse and all other millions of potential 
correspondents not, in a given period of time?

> Without that, a joe-jobbed domain with a large number of user accounts 
> can end up absorbing thousands of unwanted autoresponses, one for each 
> valid email address. Flooding one correspondent is bad, but flooding my 
> mail server at all is also bad. Autoresponders shift the burden of work 
> that should belong to their owners to those who are have to deal with 
> the unwanted messages they send out.

Unfortunately, there is no other mechanism available in email to indicate 
one's mailbox attention status.  Ideally, there would be an SMTP-time 
mechanism, but unless you are refusing the message, there is no facility 
to use (and with the state of many MTAs in common use, no guarantee that 
any of the message the autoresponder is generating will end up with the 
sender in any legible form).

But the problem isn't autoresponders themselves.  The problem is 
identifing a legitimate sender from an illegitimate one.  If an 
autoresponder knew when the sender of an email was legitimate, it would be 
able to reply reliable.  Enter SPF and all those other proposals.  How 
about directing your pent-up venom from castigating autoresponders, even 
sensible ones, to solving the real problem, and not one of its symptoms.

> I find that most people who defend autoresponders are in a way akin to
> the spam pundits who say, "Just hit delete!"

Ridiculous analogy.

> As long as they can do what they want to, they have no care about how it 
> affects those who did not ask for their email.  Minimizing their impact 
> is nice and all, but I don't think most people would want me to dump my 
> garbage on their front lawn - even if I only did it once a week.  Using 
> an autoresponder that you *know* will send out unwanted mail is 
> deliberately using the resources of others without their consent.

How does a computer system determine what is "wanted"?  If you solve that 
problem, you will solve many of the ills that afflict our present email 
system.  Don't blame autoresponders, especially sensibly implemented ones, 
for a problem which is not of their making.

> If asked, "What else am I supposed to do to solve this problem?" all I
> can say is, "Don't make your problem mine."

That's a piss-poor response though.

> > Autoresponders will never go away, and there is no reason why they should.
> I agree with the first half of that sentence, but until they stop 
> sending messages to people who don't want them, I strongly disagree with 
> the rest.  I suppose this is pretty off topic for the list, and the 
> second time that people defending autoresponders have brought me to 
> this.

I'll say it again: the undesirable behaviour you see from autoresponders 
is a symtom of a deeper problem, and that is what needs to be solved.  
Bitching about the symptom is not helpful.  There are many business and 
social reasons that require autoresponders, and if they were all 
implemented sensibly, then from the user perspective, they wouldn't be a 
problem.  Indeed it is the users who want these features.

If you're the manager of a joe-jobbed domain and you have to deal with 
them, en-masse, well, that's a fact and hazard of having an 
Internet-connected mail server, just like you would have to deal with a 
batch of spam directed directly at your domain without the autoresponder 
middle-man.  Sure, it's pretty annoying, even costly, but them's the 
risks and you have to accept that if you offer a service someone will 
abuse it sooner or later.

I happily grant you leave to bitch about crap autoresponder mechanisms if 
it makes you happy, and there are very many to bitch about.  But do not 
tar them all with the same brush, and do not make the mistake of saying 
that autoresponders are the problem when they are not.


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Jethro R Binks
Computing Officer, IT Services
University Of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK

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