TBTF for 2000-07-20 extract

Keith Dawson (
Thu, 20 Jul 2000 15:38:00 -0400

Spam fighters duke it out

Reasonable men may disagree

You probably won't see this story on mainstream news sites, because the details are just too propeller-headed and the facts too difficult to come by.

A long-running and bitter dispute between two spam-fighting organizations broke out into the open after one of them suspended operations. ORBS [21] (the Open Relay Behaviour-modification System) shut down its list of spam-friendly "open relays" earlier this week because it claims the other organization, MAPS (the Mail Abuse Prevention System) [22], had influenced a major ISP to drop ORBS into an Internet black hole.

The upshot: because ORBS was (a) loved by many because it probed everywhere, and (b) hated by many because it probed everywhere, some folks are crying, some are dancing.

This forum on Kuro5hin [23] first brought the dispute to the notice of those outside the community of the newsgroup (called NANAE). (Note an error in the leadoff post in this forum: the proprietor of ORBS is Alan Brown, not Alan Cox.)

The feud between ORBS and MAPS has been simmering for over a year on NANAE, reminiscent of the underground coal fire burning for the past 38 years in Centralia, PA [24]. The following historical summary, courtesy of, suggests why it is so difficult to plumb the facts of this dispute. Most readers of the newsgroup have long since tuned it out, and many of those remaining are partisans for one side or the other.

Number of postings in containing "ORBS in MAPS":

  99q1  99q2  99q3  99q4  00q1  00q2 00july
     0   190   324   128   165   500+  1300+
Here's what has happened, as best I can reconstruct from my own research and the help of unnamed knowledgeable sources. Last August Paul Vixie, chairman of MAPS, lost his temper over ORBS probing of the MAPS network and placed ORBS on the blackhole list. He did so against MAPS's established procedures, then quickly cooled off and rescinded the action. ORBS has retaliated by listing MAPS's main server on its list of open relays, and then removing the listing a day later, on several occasions, according to Vixie [25].

Sometime more recently -- I have not been able to pin down when --, a tier-1 ISP upstream of both MAPS and ORBS, blocked ORBS's open-relay probes. Now, the principals of MAPS are both executives at ORBS claims that has gone farther and is now discarding all traffic intended for ORBS at exchange points in London and Austria -- a practice which would be illegal in those locales, according to ORBS [26]. Paul Vixie has confirmed [27] that his MAPS partner Dave Rand, also CTO of, indeed blocked ORBS from inside the ISP. In consequence ORBS has taken offline its DNS zone file, the resource by which ISPs identify spam to block.

ORBS claims that MAPS simply wants to shut down its (competing) free service, and hints that MAPS plans to begin charging for its own currently free services. Paul Vixie denies this [28].

For further background, details, and opinion on MAPS and ORBS, see this sidebar [29]. If you have opinions of your own, please join this Quick Topic forum [30].


MAPS RBL finally gets sued

Fighting spam and dangling lawyer-bait

This is the MAPS story the media has picked up [31]. MAPS sports an explicit strategy of attracting lawsuits from the spamming industry. The idea is to establish judicial precedent against spam through a lengthy appeal process all the way to the Supreme Court. This restrained taunt appears on their "How to Sue MAPS" page [32]:

Don't waste our time with threats. We get all kinds of threats. If you intend to sue us, then get on with it. If you don't, then don't waste our time or yours telling us how actionable our activities are.

Over the weekend, news leaked out [33] that Yesmail had become the first email marketer to take them up on the offer. In fact Yesmail had won a temporary restraining order in Illinois federal court (most probably with no MAPS lawyer in attendance) preventing MAPS from adding Yesmail to the Realtime Blackhole List. Slashdot discussed the case [34] on Saturday. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 25 July.

Yesmail claims to be a "good guy" marketer that only deals in opt-in mailing lists. What got them on the wrong side of MAPS is that subscribing to their lists does not require a confirmation by email. That is, Yesmail could very well load up a mailing list with thousands of Web-harvested email addresses from a spammer's CD-ROM and claim that each of those individuals had opted in. They must have, they're on the list, right?

[Note added 2000-07-21] Here is the plaint [34a] of one very annoyed Yesmail "valued customer" who never signed up for their "opt-in" email and can't get off their list. This story reinforces the skepticism toward all such "opt-in" marketing shops that astute readers will have sensed in the preceding paragraph. Thanks to Adam Gaffin, on whose "Compendium" almost-a-blog [34b] I found this link.

The fact that MAPS is now blackholing email lists that don't offer a double opt-in process is indicative of how far they have expanded their anti-spam crusade beyond the initial elegance of the MAPS RBL. My guess is that this "mission creep" is part of a deliberate escalation strategy intended to insure that, eventually, some spammer will sue them. It's a dangerous strategy. Judges are conservative; courts can take decades to catch up with the changes that new technologies bring. I just hope that MAPS hasn't become so provocative that the courts hand down a spam-friendly ruling under which we will all suffer for a generation.


Copyright © 1995-1999 by Keith Dawson. Commercial use prohibited. May be excerpted, mailed, posted, or linked for non-commercial purposes.

Most recently updated 2000-09-27



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