On some broken email auto-responders

You have been referred to this document for one of a number of reasons.

  1. You are a "postmaster" or administrator for a site where people use broken auto-responders.
  2. You are a list manager whose list members are getting auto responses to things that they post.
  3. You are a member of a list, and have been getting pointless and annoying auto-responders to your postings.
  4. You are a user who has enabled an auto-responder to your mail and through your choice of broken software, got other list members annoyed with you.
  5. You are ultimately responsible for some site which uses broken software. That is, you are the boss of the "postmaster". You may have played a role in the choice of the misbehaving software.
  6. You are just curious.

Although this document should be read by all of those people listed above, its language is directed to the the postmaster or site administrator of the site with the obnoxious auto-responder and to the user who set it up.

Lists and courtesy

Consider a large email discussion list of say 1000 members. Now suppose that at any one time 2% of the list members are "on vacation" or "out of the office" or otherwise not reading their mail. Suppose that they all incorrectly set up auto-responders saying so. That would mean that every time someone posts to the list, they get 20 auto-responses from people that they probably don't know. Each individual one is a minor annoyance, but collectively it would show a great deal of discourtesy among email users.

Fortunately, since the early days of email auto-responders (from the 1970s), auto-responders have been designed to only respond selectively to messages. Auto-responders and email discussion lists have been living together without too much difficulty for decades. But the advent of newer, less Internet-friendly software, has made this a problem.

Proper auto-responders (among other things) shouldn't respond to messages posted to mailing lists. There are several tricks that auto-responders traditionally use to achieve this.

  1. They only respond to messages with a specific address in the To: or Cc: fields of an email message. For example, if I set up an auto-responder, I should set it so that it only sends a response to mail that is explicitly addressed to . I could list a handful of alternatives addresses as well to be responded to. Most auto-responders do this by default.
  2. They look for list specific headers. Traditionally (though not according to standards), many list management systems add a Precedence: header to the message with the value either being "bulk", "list" or "junk". While that convention never made it into standards, there is no harm in an auto-responder looking for such a header, and not responding to mail with it.
  3. Look for a specific pattern in the sender information. Traditionally (though again not formally) most email lists have what is called an "envelope sender" in the form of "owner-LISTNAME". Messages that have senders that begin with "owner-" are very likely to be list postings, and so shouldn't get "I'm on vacation" auto-responses.

Now, if an auto-responder does the above (or even most of the above) it will not send off inappropriate messages in response to list postings.

Other criteria of a good autoresponder

There are other criteria of a good auto-responder, not all of which are for interactions with mailing lists.

Configuring your auto-responder

I have very little information about these. If people send me information, I will try to add it. But basically, if you can't configure your auto-responder to do the right thing, than either don't use the auto-responder or don't join Internet discussion groups.

To meet some of the additional criteria of a good auto-responder, it is easiest if the auto-responder is integrated into the mail delivery system, but that isn't strictly necessary. And the main criteria for list interaction do not require that.

There are far too many versions of this Unix program out there for much to be said consistently. But when you start the vacation program you have to explicitly tell it which recipient addresses matter for responses. Additionally, most versions of it that I have seen pay some attention to the "Precedence" headers.
exim filters
If you are using exim filter files for auto-responders, there is a macro "personal" exactly to determine if the mail meets various criteria to be worth of an auto-response. Again, you need to explicitly list addresses that need to appear in the To header for a response to be generated.
Procmail documentation includes examples of how to set up auto-responders properly.
This appears to be the big offender. Almost all of the incorrect auto response that I have seen come from such systems. These typically are called "out of office" messages on those systems. If someone can give me instructions on how to set that up so that it behaves properly, I will include them here.
Lotus Notes
I believe that this is similar to MS-Exchange.
Novell GroupWise
I have been told that at least some versions of Novell/GroupWise behave incorrectly.

It may be the case that your site administrator has set up some mechanism for setting up these auto-responders. Most individual users may not be in a position to set up their own exim filters, procmail files, or vacation invocations themselves. In all cases, users should talk to their email site administrators about auto-responders. Well managed sites will have guidelines and tools to do this which will behave in an Internet friendly way.

The bottom line

The bottom line is that if can't stop your auto-responder from responding to list postings, than either don't use the auto-responder or don't belong to any lists.

Other notes

Note that most the above discussion applies only to personal email addresses. It may be appropriate to have functional addresses (such as help@domain.example which send an auto-response to (nearly) everything. But those addresses should never be on email discussion lists.

I haven't touched upon the debate of to which address an autoresponse should go. Whether it is to the envelope sender or to one of the headers. I consider that question a tough call, and people who argue either side of that debate will still agree with the criteria I've listed above.

Version: $Revision: 1.5 $
Last Modified: $Date: 2003/08/13 18:17:09 $ GMT
First established: 2001/07/13
Author: Jeffrey Goldberg