Engineers in the Internet Engineering Task Force, in the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group, and elsewhere have been debating how to handle e-mail-server blocklists in an IPv6 network. Let’s take a look at the problem here.

We basically have three ways to address spam, in our goal of reducing the amount of spam in our inboxes:

  1. Prevent its being sent in the first place.
  2. Refuse to accept it when it’s presented for relay or delivery.
  3. Discard it or put it into a “junk mail” folder at (or after) delivery.
The last is handled by what we usually think of as “spam filters”, which analyze the content and other aspects of the messages. Dealing with the first involves law enforcement, as well as adoption of best practices for legal email marketers. To implement the second, we try to do various analyses during the actual transmission of the email messages, in order to respond at the protocol level with some sort of refusal. It’s rather like standing between your postal carrier and the mailbox at your house, and telling the carrier that she may put this envelope into the box, but she should take those two catalogues and the credit-card offer right back to the post office with her.

And one can actually imagine doing that, by looking at the envelopes and applying rules such as, “If it’s pre-sorted, it’s probably junk,” and, “The more urgent it claims to be, the more likely it is to be junk.” But a better way, still, would be if we could get this to happen as soon as the junk mail entered the postal system, by having a way to say, “See that guy who’s dropping that pile of mail at the post office? He only sends junk, and when you see him coming just make him go away. Don’t even let him bring his pile in the door.”

We have that in our email systems, in what we call IP blocklists (or blacklists). These are lists of the numeric Internet addresses of email servers that we think send so much spam that we won’t even let them come to the door. When one of these servers makes an Internet connection to one of our mail servers, we don’t even start an email protocol exchange with them — we just refuse the connection. We make them go away.

Estimates vary as to what portion of attempted spam this blocks, but at least some estimates are on the order of 90%. Despite the problems with this mechanism (legitimate mail servers do find themselves on blocklists, for various reasons, and sometimes have a hard time getting the list-managers to remove them), it’s a critical one in the fight against spam, saving a great deal of time and computing resources by cutting the spam messages off much earlier in the process.

But note that it deals with IP addresses. Today, of course, that means IPv4 addresses, those things that look like, and that there are around 4 billion of. 4 billion is a large number, but, as we’ve seen, it’s notably finite and manageable. It’s reasonable to take every IP address we ever see trying to send mail, and keep it on a list, sorting the addresses into the “good” ones and the “bad” ones. It’s feasible to block Internet connections from the ones in our list that are marked “bad”.

Not so when we consider IPv6. Bumping the IP address from 32 bits to 128, bumping the 4 billion up to a billion billion billion or so — the number doesn’t matter, at that point — makes it infeasible to keep a list of bad addresses. There are enough addresses there to allow the bad guys to use a new one every time, so we’d never see repeats. There are, of course, ways we can group addresses into large blocks, and know that any address we see in one of those blocks will be bad, but even that isn’t enough to make it work.

We could switch to a “pass list”, a whitelist of known good addresses — that would still be small enough to be manageable — and refuse anything else. But that makes it very hard for an organization to deploy a new server, or for a new organization to join in.

John Levine has one approach: leave the email system on IPv4 for the foreseeable future. Even, John points out, when many other services, customer endpoints, mobile and household devices, and the like have been — have to have been — switched to IPv6, we can still run the Internet email infrastructure on IPv4 for a long time, leaving the IP blocklists with v4 addresses, and a system that we’re already managing fine with.

Of course, some day, we’ll want to completely get rid of IPv4 on the Internet, and by then we’ll need to have figured out a replacement for the IP blocklist mechanism. But John’s right that that won’t be happening for many years yet, and he makes a good case for saying that we don’t have to worry about it.

At least not until he and I have long been retired