Blackholed by Big Brother's Invisible Hand

(article draft)
December 11, 2001

"There will be a day when folks will need to pay to transit email." (Paul Vixie, 1998) [1]

Like in any newly built neighborhood, gangs and organized crime were not far behind to appear in the Internet's global village. Since there was no police force to fear, enterprising cyberthugs saw it as their duty to offer protection racket services to the defenseless inhabitants. As governments largely believe the Internet can self-regulate, the vigilante "protectors" operate with impunity, vying for supremacy over other people's electronic communications.

No turf battle raged more intensely in the virtual cyberworld than the spam wars. And no zealots have ever fought more intensely for their turf as Paul Vixie's gang known as MAPS (Mail Abuse Prevention System). MAPS backer Abovenet went as far as to purposely disrupt the world-wide communications [2] of rival Alan Brown's ORBS (Open Relay Behaviour-modification System), now mercifully shut down by the New Zealand legal system. For Vixie's little MAPS syndicate, censorship started to pay dividends and became big business.

In essence, Vixie's group controls a tap capable to shut down at will the world-wide connectivity of anyone they so chose. The dreaded MAPS blackhole is a database of ip numbers and ranges, which can be used as a BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) feed at the provider's router. Any ip blacklisted by MAPS, for whatever petty mischief that offends the "one's brother's keeper" [3] arbitrary standards, becomes unreachable to parts of the Internet, and data packets coming from or addressed to the targeted server or network are purposely discarded. Because some backbone providers blindly use such censorware [4], thousands of harmless web sites, no matter how popular, can be made to mysteriously vanish at their whim and pleasure.

Why would any company willingly entrust the fate and control of their communications to a third party? MAPS and other holier-than-thou militant groups want us to believe that all their subscribers are doing so on a voluntary basis. Sure, and all the Chinese volunteered to be good communists! Beyond the comfort of having someone else do their dirty work and take the blame when confronted, economic concerns and the like, many ISPs were coerced [5] into politically correct thinking about spam by extortionate vigilantism. In Vixie's words, "'spam neutral' is the same, to me, as 'spam friendly'." [6] As MAPS put it to blackholed polling firm Harris Interactive, it was "our way or the highway." [7] So it came as no surprise that most of those beleaguered dotcoms found it easier to submit to whatever absurd rule was thrusted upon them, such as double-verifying their subscribed customer mailing lists, rather than to fight for their rights. When in China, most obedient Chinese pretend to be good communists. And what better protection for their transit email can folks get than to pay the piper [8]?

Not content to fight the spammer, a new commandment was invented: thou shall not relay. An ISP can be blacklisted if any offending piece of spam sent by another provider's customer traverses their servers. Never mind that they infringed upon a practice ingrained since the Internet's inception, or that thousands of innocent users of a network may get blocked, this is a lesson in ISP "behaviour modification". Former Abovenet boss Dave Rand provided a revealing glimpse of the magnitude of their enterprise in May 2001, when he posted [9] in a public forum that the MAPS RSS had around 100,000 hosts listed as "open relays", with between 100 and 1,500 hosts added daily. Pacific Bell, an SBC Communications subsidiary, blocks more than 110,000 by using blacklists compiled by one Joe Jared, who seems to have been blindly endowed by the telco with absolute communications censorship powers [10]. Wake up: there are now well over a hundred thousand black sheep, and only a couple wolves guarding them. What are the chances we will see them run over when the herd stampedes?

The terror attacks of September 11 should have opened the public's eyes to Big Brother's invisible hand interfering with their communications. It was the one day when every email message received mattered. Despite an appeal [11] to suspend blackholing until the dust settled, thousands of desperately urgent messages bounced because MAPS and the ORBS' offsprings cared more about "protecting" you from spam than showing compassion for those stranded travellers. Safely hiding in their California cave, MAPS fanatics tended to their anti-spam guns as usual, oblivious to your pain. How many new hosts were blacklisted that day?

In his Executive Order for Critical Infrastructure Protection in the Information Age [12], President George W. Bush has reassured us that "It is the policy of the United States to protect against disruption of the operation of information systems for critical infrastructure". From an average users' perspective, the infrastructure is damaged when Internet connectivity is broken for some reason. The duty of ISPs and backbone providers should be to ensure their users can communicate freely, acting as information common carriers, not as content regulators. Granted, maybe MAPS blackholing a small ISP such as NetSide [13] for a single spam message relayed by another provider's customer is not damaging the critical infrastructure from the government's perspective, although it unlawfully interferes with their users' e-commerce transactions for more than a year now. How about MAPS threatening to blackhole the domain registrar Network Solutions? [14] How about blackholing titan Microsoft's network? [15] How about a hundred thousand other hosts?

Blackholing has escalated beyond zapping petty spam, and now threatens the very integrity and reliability of the Internet infrastructure. Entrusting such formidable weapon of electronic mass-destruction in the hands of immature hacker souls, now thriving as self-appointed Internet regulators, has produced unacceptable levels of collateral damage. Vixie himself likened the effects of BGP blackholing to the WWII firebombing of Dresden [16]. Perhaps someone should remind his censor-happy followers of the famous words uttered in the U.S. Supreme Court majority decision, Reno v. ACLU, 1997: "Any content-based regulation of the Internet, no matter how benign the purpose, could burn the global village to roast the pig."


[1] Stan Barber, Academic Consulting Services, 1998 - Technical Considerations in Preventing Mail Abuse: Presentation and Open Discussion (transcript)

[2] Abovenet disrupts world-wide communications (article collection)

[3] Paul Vixie, MAPS, 2000 - MAPS RBL Rationale

[4] Jamie McCarthy, Slashdot, 2000 - MAPS RBL Is Now Censorware (Updated)

[5] James Glave, Wired News, 1998 - Netcom Escapes Anti-Spam Blackhole,1282,10086,00.html

[6] Bay Area Linux User Group - NANOG Phoenix 1997 - Spam! (slide)

[7] Ben Charny, ZDNet News, 2000 - Harris sues ISPs over spam blockade,4586,2610998,00.html

[8] MAPS, 2001 - Mail Abuse Prevention System - Schedule of Annual Fees

[9] North American Network Operators Group (NANOG mailing list archives), Re: Stealth Blocking - message posted by Dave Rand, May 2001

[10] David Lazarus, SF Chronicle, Nov 2001 - Arts group caught in spam trap

[11] NetSide Corporation, 2001 - Blackholed in a State of Emergency

[12] The White House, President George W. Bush, 2001 - Executive Order on Critical Infrastructure Protection

[13] NetSide Corporation, 2000 - Stop the MAPS conspiracy!

[14] NSI threatens to sue Blackhole List operator (article collection), 1999

[15] Debbie Scoblionkov, Wired News, 1998 - MSN Emerges from Black Hole,1282,12957,00.html

[16] North American Network Operators Group (NANOG mailing list archives), Re: BGP blackholing spam - message posted by Paul Vixie, Sep 1997


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