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net.wars: Spam, spam, spam, and spam

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 20 October 2006


Illinois is a fine state. It is the Land of Lincoln. It is the birth place of such well-known Americans as Oprah Winfrey, Roger Ebert, and Ronald Reagan. It has a baseball team so famous that even I know it's called the Chicago Cubs. John Dewey (as in the Dewey decimal system for cataloguing library books) came from Illinois. So did the famous pro-evolution lawyer Clarence Darrow, Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, the nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, semiconductor inventor William Shockley, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wendy M Grossman

I say all this because I don't want anyone to think I don't like or respect Illinois or the intelligence and honour of its judges, including those of Charles Kocoras, who who awarded $11.7 million in damages to e360Insight, a company branded a spammer by the Spamhaus Project.

The story has been percolating for a while now, but is reasonably simple. e360Insight says it's not a bad spammer guy but a good opt-in marketing guy; Spamhaus first said the Illinois court didn't have jurisdiction over a British company with no offices, staff, or operations in the US, then decided to appeal against the court's $11.7 million judgement. e360Insight filed a motion asking the court to have ICANN and/or Spamhaus's domain registrar, the Canadian company Tucows, remove Spamhaus's domain from the Net.

The judge refused to grant this request, partly because doing so would cut off Spamhaus's lawful activities, not just those in contravention of the order he issued against Spamhaus. And a good time is being had by all the lawyers.

The case raises so many problems you almost don't know where to start.

For one thing, there's the arms race that is spam and anti-spam. This lawsuit escalates it, in that if you can't get rid of an anti-spammer through DDoS attacks, well, hey, bankrupt them through lawsuits.

Spam, as we know, is a terrible, intractable problem that has broken email, and is trying to break blogs, instant messaging, online chat, and, soon, VOIP. (The net.wars blog, this week, has had hundreds of spam comments, all appearing to come from various Gmail addresses, all landing in my inbox, breaking both blogs and email in one easy, low-cost plan. The breakage takes two forms. One is the spam itself – up to 90 percent of all email. But the second is the steps people take to stop it. No one can use email with any certainty now.

Some have argued that real-time blacklists are censorship. I don't think it's fair to invoke the specter of Joseph McCarthy. For one thing, using these blacklists is voluntary. No one is forced to subscribe, not even free Webmail users. That single fact ought to be the biggest protection against abuse. For another thing, spam email in the volumes it's now going out is effectively censorship in itself: it fills email boxes, often obscuring and sometimes blocking entirely wanted email.

The fact that most of it either is a scam or advertises something illegal is irrelevant; what defines spam, I have long argued, is the behavior that produces it. I have also argued that the most effective way to put spammers out of business is to lean on the credit card companies to pull their authorisations.

Mail servers are private property; no one has the automatic right to expect mine to receive unwanted email just as I am not obliged to speak to a telemarketer who phones during dinner.

That does not mean all spambusters are perfect. Spamhaus provides a valuable public service. But not all anti-spammers are sane; in 2004 journalist Brian McWilliams made a reasonable case in his book Spam Kings that some anti-spammers can be as obsessive as the spammers they chase.

The question that's dominated a lot of the Spamhaus coverage is whether an Illinois court has jurisdiction over a UK-based company with no offices or staff in the US. In the increasingly connected world we live in, there are going to be a lot of these jurisdictional questions.

The first one I remember – the 1996 case United States vs. Thomas – came down in favor of the notion that Tennessee could impose its community decency standards on a bulletin board system in California. It may be regrettable – but consumers are eager enough for their courts to have jurisdiction in case of fraud. Spamhaus is arguably as much in business in the US as any foreign organisation whose products are bought or used in the US.

Ultimately, "Come here and say that" just isn't much of a legal case.

The really tricky and disturbing question is: how should blacklists operate in future? Publicly listing the spammers whose mail is being blocked is an important – even vital – way of keeping blacklists honest.

If you know what's being blocked and can take steps to correct it, it's not censorship. But publishing those lists makes legal action against spam blockers of all types – blacklists, filtering software, you name it – easier.

Spammers themselves, however, should not rejoice if Spamhaus goes down. Spam has broken email, that's not news. But if Spamhaus goes and we actually receive all the spam it's been weeding out for us – the flood will be so great that spam will finally break spam itself.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).