What makes the best email filter? There isn’t really a single answer to that question. Different people and different organizations have different tolerances for how false positives versus false negatives. For instance, we’re quite sensitive to false positives here, so we run extremely conservative filtering and don’t block very much at the MTA level. Other people I know are very sensitive to false negatives and run more aggressive filtering and block quite a bit of mail at the MTA level.
For the major ISPs, the people who plan, approve, design and monitor the filters usually want to maximize customer happiness. They want to deliver as much real mail as possible while blocking as much bad mail. Blocking real mail and letting through bad mail both result in unhappy customers and increase the ISP’s costs, either through customer churn or through support calls. And this is a process, filters are not static. ISPs roll out new filters all the time, sometimes they are an improvement and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, they’re pulled out of production. This works both for positive filters like Return Path and negative filters like blocklists.
Then there is mail filtering that doesn’t have to do with spam. Business filters, for instance, often block non-business mail. Permission of the recipient often isn’t even a factor. Companies don’t often go out of their way to block personal mail, but if personal mail gets blocked (say the vacation plane ticket or the amazon receipt) they don’t often unblock it. But when you think about why a business provides email, it makes perfect sense. The business provides email to further its own business goals. Some personal usage is usually OK, but if someone notices and blocks personal email then it’s unlikely the business will unblock it, even if the employee opted in.
In the case of email filters, the free market does work. Different ISPs filter mail differently. Some people love Gmail’s filters. Other people think Hotmail has the best filtering. There are different standards for filtering, and that makes email stronger and more robust. Consumers have choices in their mail provider and spamfiltering.