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AOL Plans Launch of DKIM based domain sender reputation system

by Andrew O'Halloran, Chief Privacy Officer

AOL announced its plans to implement a DKIM based domain sender reputation sometime in the first half of 2009. During the ESPC Discussion call, Mike Adkins from AOL explains that the launch date will depend on how well the project progresses. A best case scenario is in Q1 2009, but most likely the official launch will fall to Q2 2009.


Domain keys Identified Mail (DKIM) is a cryptographic email authentication method, making it possible to detect email forgery (“phishing”) by validating that the message actually comes from the domain that it claims to have come from. Signing messages with DKIM helps senders protect their domain and brand reputation against deceptive abuse by spammers.

A reputation system has two important linear components. The first is authentication (i.e. who is this sender?) and the second is authorization (i.e. what rights should be granted to this sender?). DKIM itself is only an email authentication method, but fulfills the important pre-requisite step to verify the identity of the sender, making it possible for the receiver to make authorization decisions through a domain based reputation system. Without the email authentication method provided by DKIM, reputation calculations would be unreliable since spammers forging the domain will incorrectly influence the domain’s reputation score.

Don’t panic

There is no reason to panic over the notion of this change because AOL’s present IP based reputation system will continue to run after the launch of DKIM based domain reputation system. However, only one system will be used to evaluate messages. If the message is signed with DKIM, then the domain reputation system will be used. If not, then the IP based reputation system will be used. I think this demonstrates once again the careful thought that AOL puts into its innovations. By separating the reputation systems rather than creating a blended system, it will be much easier for AOL and sender to troubleshoot reputation issues.

Change is good

While AOL is not forcing anyone to change and start signing messages using DKIM, there are some great benefits that should entice you. For one, you have a lot more flexibility in your choice of infrastructure. For example, if your current ISP hosting company goes out of business, it could mean also losing a whitelisted AOL IP. With AOL’s DKIM (link to DKIM internet resource) based domain reputation system, you don't have to worry about such IP problems.

With DKIM-based signing no “warm-up” period is required for a new server. Just bring the new server online, sign email using DKIM, and continue to send the same email volume you were sending before.

AOL has no plans to expire a domain’s positive reputation from inactivity such as what happens now with AOL’s IP based reputation system. This is of course great news for business models and organizations where email campaigns are sent on a seasonal basis or only during certain times of the year.

Make the leap

In the end, there should not be a whole lot holding you back to at least plan to soon start signing your messages with DKIM. As a reputable permission based email marketer, you put a lot of work into developing and maintaining your company and domain reputation. Don’t let that go to waste – take advantage of DKIM to not only protect your reputation, but also to maximize deliverability.

Stay tuned for AOL to publish a DKIM FAQ on its postmaster site

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