AOL Feedback Loop Gets a Makeover

Four years ago, a small group of email technology experts – from AOL, Yahoo!, the open source community, and other places – got together to solve what seemed to be a simple problem: feedback loops, such as AOL’s, were not standardized and often difficult to parse. The result was a draft standard called the Abuse Reporting Format, or ARF, which has been adopted by nearly every ISP that has created a feedback loop since then – including Comcast and other feedback loops hosted by Return Path. (It’s called a “draft standard” because the document has not yet gone through the IETF’s full standards process. Few changes are expected as that process continues.)

Once this specification was stable, AOL began to offer an ARF option for those feedback recipients who were ready for it. Being generally nice folks, however, they continued to offer the old format.
But now, AOL has announced on their postmaster blog that they will be offering Abuse Reporting Format (ARF) as the only format for Feedback Loop (FBL) reports. Beginning on September 2, 2008, AOL will remove all non-ARF FBLs. They will also convert all existing non-ARF FBLs to ARF.

This may be a concern for some smaller operations, because ARF messages are not readable in Microsoft Outlook or some other major desktop email clients. Parsing and decoding the complaints will require scripting updates by you or your technology provider. If you have existing AOL FBLs in the old non-ARF format, you must prepare your system to parse ARF complaints by September 2, 2008.

Here’s the good news: if you are a Return Path client and you use our complaint analyzer and downloader to process your FBLs, you do not have to make any changes. We’ve been parsing ARF since it was invented – two of our employees were involved in the group that wrote it- so we’ll be able to accurately make all updates on your behalf. If you are a Return Path client who isn’t currently using these services, but would really love us to take over processing for you, contact your account manager to learn more. Not a Return Path client? Well, this might be an excellent reason to become one. Email Chris Kingdon in the Sales Department.

If you want to go it alone, that’s simply a matter of applying sufficient amounts of the correct technology. ARF messages are MIME, easily separated using perl or other scripting languages. The first part is for general information, the second part contains machine-parsable metadata which looks a lot like email headers (though it isn’t), and the third part is the original message being complained about. But if you don’t want to have to write the new software yourself, Return Path (and, to be fair, some of our competitors) can help.

Note that AOL will continue to redact portions of the original message, in order to hide clear-text occurrences of AOL screen names and email addresses. You may need to incorporate a tracking id unique to the recipient so that you can process the removals.

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