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Innocent Users Falsely Accused of Spamming
Are You Next?

by Bob Schmidt
Author of The Geek's Guide to Internet Business Success
Published by John Wiley and Sons

As ISPs increasingly come to play the role of Internet Big Brother, innocent Internet users are being falsely accused of spamming -- and wrongly punished. Anyone with an email account or a website is at risk.  Internet marketers are especially vulnerable.

As an Internet marketer, but also as a champion of the small ISP, I am deeply concerned about the direction this is headed. When you mix together ISPs, netiquette, user empowerment, privacy, and Internet marketing, clearly there are a number of rights in conflict. Yet ISPs do not seem to be willing to look at the big picture and no one else is willing to either. The so-called champions of free speech on the Internet, the EFF and even the ACLU, are taking the easy way out on this issue.

This story in Wired magazine explains what happened to one innocent domain owner who was wrongly accused of spamming -- and shut down without any benefit of doubt. Ironically, the victim was a member of CAUCE, the antispammer group who believes ISPs should shoot first and ask questions later. As the Wired story relates, UUnet did just that. This is not an isolated example. For every case reported in the press, who knows how many hundreds, possibly thousands, of others have been falsely accused?

Why is this happening? Because ISPs are, in effect, no more than private online country clubs. Like a country club member, Internet users have only those rights which are granted them by their ISP "club." The sad truth is, as far as the typical ISP is concerned, as an Internet user, you have no rights whatsoever. If you haven't abided by club rules -- or the ISP thinks you haven't --  you're out-- with no recourse, no right of appeal, and no due process. Evidently, ISPs are free to discriminate against anyone they choose, for any reason. If you've been an innocent victim of false accusations and had your email account or website shut down, tell me about it.

In addition, ISPs have foolishly allowed themselves to get sucked into a no-win position: they have bought into the absurd notion that the ISP is responsible for everything that goes out over the Internet and is the one who must do something about every Internet problem. It is one thing to sympathize with an upset customer. It is another to take on the sick role of a co-dependent who assumes responsibility for everything. Yet, under the guise of industry self-regulation, that is exactly what ISPs are doing.

I predict this will only get worse. Ultimately, it  will affect every Internet user or someone they work for, work with, sell to, buy from, or are related to. Eventually, every Internet user will have their email account shut down by a misguided, trigger-happy ISP.

An Internet User's Bill of Rights is entirely appropriate and should be developed now to address the completely outrageous imbalance of power between users and ISPs. This is something that should be added to Vice-President Al Gore's proposed Electronic Bill of Rights .  Covering privacy rights pertaining to medical records, credit bureaus and state driver's license data, it also calls for a one-stop opt-out on direct mail and telemarketing. Though the proposed opt-out registry doesn't cover the Internet, it could very easily be added. Such "no call" lists benefit consumers and marketers alike.

Privacy is important. But if the Internet stands for anything, it means empowering the user. That has as much to do with freedom as it does privacy. One of the fundamental tenets of Internet users' rights should be the recognition that bandwidth is a publicly owned resource, no different than telephone, broadcast, cable and utilities. The ISP, merely a reseller, must  be required to relinquish all content control to the user. Does the electric company tell you what you can watch on tv or block tv commercials? Of course not. And ISPs should not be in the content regulation or prior censorship business, yet that is exactly what they are doing when they block email.

Censoring of email and the web, wholesale blocking of domains from suspected spammers, etc. should be strictly a user choice on the same opt-out basis called for in Gore's proposal, not something imposed by the ISP.

This is far different than the situation today. ISPs can and do block email on an arbitrary basis. Their users have no idea who or what is being blocked or when or why.  The ISP decides, willy nilly, what email it wants to deliver. It is now clear that no one has any idea what the ISP is really doing. By blocking the delivery of email, ISPs are raising  the same interconnect issues that plagued the phone industry in its early years of development.

Thus, another fundamental tenet that should be included in an Internet Bill of Rights: the idea that the ISP, like the post office, is supposed to deliver all of the mail to all of the people. This is a no brainer. ISPs should be common carriers offering service on a first come, first served basis to all who can afford it, just like the post office, the phone company, Federal Express and UPS. Instead, ISPs are "going postal" and killing off innocent email and innocent Internet users.

It is absurd for Internet providers to think that they know what is real mail and what is spam -- or worse that they know what is best for their users. How could they possibly know what is in your mail? There is only one way  -- your ISP has to read all of your email. Is this really what you had in mind when you set up an email account? I doubt it.

ISPs are without question the Heros of the Internet. After all, they are the ones who keep the network up and running. It's a tough job, and most do it very well.  But they are not King of the Net. The User is King. And users come in different shapes and sizes. Some users are consumers, some are marketers... and some are both. It's one thing to keep the bits flowing. It's another to decide whose bits will flow to whom. Ultimately, blocking, what the ISP wants you to think is a "goodwill gesture," will be seen as the utter hubris it is and completely backfire on ISPs.

Until they are designated as common carriers, ISPs should at least be required by any law attempting to regulate bulk email to disclose which domains they are blocking and provide a "cooling off" period or a grace period before punishing a customer suspected of -- and probably innocent of -- spamming. That will level the playing field for users and Internet marketers alike.

Smart ISPs will not wait for a law. They will offer their customers these protections now, act like common carriers, and refuse to be held accountable for what's in everyone's email.


Important Note: While I do not hesitate to argue the merits of bulk email from a marketing perspective, I do not advocate its use. Neither do I begrudge those who are taking very real risks to experiment with it.