When Spam Policing Gets Out of Control

Anyone who’s had an e-mail account for more than a week knows the extent
spam has permeated the Internet lifestyle, but the actions of over-zealous
“spam cops” are shutting down and taking off-line hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of legitimate businesses.

Blacklists, the controversial method of filtering out IP addresses of known
spammers and their ilk, have been around almost as long as spam
itself. When a person or agency files a complaint against a server that
hosts mass e-mail marketers, the blacklist will put the IP address of the
server in its database, which is then downloaded by Internet service
providers (ISPs) and carriers alike and put in its email server to filter
out the “bad” IP addresses.

There are many blacklists out there today, ranging from the well-known
Relay Stop List (RSL) and Open Relay Database (ORDB) sites to the
home-grown scripts written by experienced programmers.

Over the years, several have been shut down after picking a blacklist fight
with a well-connected business or government site with an aggressive team
of lawyers, as in the case of popular ORBZ blacklist.

Many consider the blacklist community the consumer’s and ISP’s best friend,
saving thousands of e-mails from bogging down the network and clogging the
inbox.

But sometimes whole blocks of IP addresses are included in the mix,
shutting down an entire network of servers found in the block of addresses
— the innocent and guilty alike. It’s a situation that affects many ISPs
and Web hosts today, requiring them in many cases to beg and plead for
their domain’s release from the blacklist.

Consider Interland, reckoned by many anti-spam advocates as the number-one
haven for spammers in the known universe. At one time or another, the Web
hosting company has been the home to almost a 100 spam sites, which
blanketed the Internet with “opt-in” and pornographic e-mails.

Efforts to get these spammers off the network were met with deaf ears by
Interland officials, anti-spam organizations said. Putting Interland’s
entire block of IP addresses seemed like the best option, and one taken by
blacklist Spam Prevention Early Warning System (SPEWS).

While the move certainly got the attention of Interland officials and was a
victory for anti-spammers, the blacklist affected many more than just the
spammers. Before the Web host was de-listed by the blacklist on Feb. 8,
all of Interland’s 400,000 legitimate customers were barred from the ISP
and carrier networks using SPEWS’ blacklist database.

According to Jeff Mitcham, part-owner of ISP and Web hosting company APEC
Solutions, the ends do not justify the means and the end result of
blacklists filtering out IP blocks are overkill.

“It’s the equivalent to trying to kill mosquitoes using an elephant gun and
not worrying whether you actually see the mosquito or not,” he said.

It’s an interesting dilemma for ISPs and blacklists alike. Case in point
— the largest ISP in the world, America Online , has been
conducting what can only be diplomatically described as an “aggressive”
e-mail mass marketing campaign.

For weeks now, AOL has been spamming its latest AOL 7 to the customers of
other ISPs around the U.S. through mass-mailers Focalex.com,
freebiebank.com and shopathome.com, to the tune of one e-mail per customer
every three minutes.

John Keown, owner of ISP NuNet, Inc., said his servers have been bogged
down with roughly 500 e-mails every day because of the AOL campaign. The
answer, it would seem, would be to blacklist the three e-mail distributors.

But the root cause is AOL, which hired the companies to disseminate all
those e-mails. Is the answer blocking out AOL? Doing so would put an end
to the online efforts of tens of thousands of small businesses who set up
shop in AOL’s e-commerce area and the e-mails from its 34 million plus
customers.

Given the arbitrary nature of some blacklists, it could happen.

The main problem with some of these blacklists, Mitcham said, is not the
fact that blacklists exist (as an ISP he is aware of the costs spam brings
to his network), but the arbitrary nature of Web hosts and ISPs finding
their way onto the blacklist in the first place.

“(SPEWS) has an interesting belief of ‘blacklisting by rumor’,” he
said. “In other words, they are too lazy to actually check to see if there
is an open relay, or if the ISP is actually promoting spam. Instead, if
they get any indication that you ‘may’ be spamming they will block your
entire Class C.”

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