Slamming Spamming

By Jason Krause
Issue Date: Dec 28 1998

Net vigilante Paul Vixie spearheads a grassroots crusade against junk e-mail. Some people think he's gone too far.

Spammers, beware. Vigilantes are combing the Net for people sending unwanted mass e-mails, and enlisting ISPs in the cause. Unfortunately, the cure could be worse than the disease.

Leading the charge is Paul Vixie, a Redwood City, Calif., Internet consultant who maintains a controversial list of IP addresses reported to be harboring spammers. Internet service providers that subscribe to the list, known as MAPS RBL, Mail Abuse Protection System Realtime Blackhole List, can block delivery of e-mail from anyone using the suspect domains.

"My methods are heavy-handed," admits Vixie. "But somebody has to do something."

Some surprising names have made it onto the blacklist, including ATT (T) and Ziff-Davis (dossier). Virtually every ISP - including America Online (AOL), EarthLink, the Microsoft (MSFT) Network and Netcom - has either made an appearance on the list or been threatened with inclusion.

MAPS has more than 200 subscribers, about a third of which are ISPs, and some e-mail programs give you the option to reject messages from any domain on the MAPS list.

It's harder to get off the list than it is to get on. To win removal, Vixie requires the offending ISP or company to change its business practices. In the meantime, a company dependent on e-mail for its livelihood will have lost business.

"If you're sending spam, your network is hurting my network," says Vixie. "If you say, 'it's too hard,' I'll ask, 'What's your schedule to fix your server?' If you don't answer, I'll assume there's no plan to remedy the situation, and you'll stay on the list."

Some people find Vixie's approach too harsh. Howie Swaim, who operates a Web site called the Y2K Informant, ended up on the list after a spammer gained access to his e-mail server and sent a mass mailing from Swaim's ISP. It was weeks before the Y2K Informant had normal e-mail capabilities.

"They're doing this with absolutely no just cause or legal jurisdiction," complains Swaim. "It means that ISPs are claiming jurisdiction over our very basic First Amendment rights."

Swaim's attorney, Mark Boulding of the Washington-based law firm Long, Aldridge & Norman, contends Vixie has broken state computer-trespass laws prohibiting unauthorized interference. "We're all antispam, and no one wants to attack the leading antispam crusader," says Boulding. "But Vixie refuses to consider the innocent bystander. He holds people like Howie hostage to put pressure on an ISP."

Some antispammers think Vixie isn't aggressive enough. A new group, the Internet Mail Relay Services Survey, plans a blacklist of its own. Unlike MAPS, the IMRSS will not notify ISPs of inclusion on the list before they are placed on it.

"Innocent bystanders will get hurt, but what alternative is there?" says Ron Guilmette, who's coordinating the new project. "Spam is a damn difficult problem, and sometimes you will throw the baby out with the bathwater."



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