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Choosing spam over censorship
By Hiawatha Bray,
I have pretty much made my peace
with spam - those annoying
unwanted e-mails from folks trying to sell
you something. The stuff just doesn't
bother me as much as it used to, even
though I get more of it than ever.
I've learned to chuckle at messages that
offer me the chance to retire rich at age
35 - eight years too late, guys. FedEx me
a time machine and try again. Meanwhile,
I'll just delete this crapola with the
flick of a finger ... there! That wasn't
too bad. And maybe the next batch will be
Not everybody's as even-tempered as I am,
though. One Californian's outrage over
spam has launched him on a crusade that's
being waged in a federal court.
There's a good chance you've never heard
of Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC (MAPS)
of Redwood City, Calif., even if you're
affected by its actions. MAPS was founded
in 1997 by Paul Vixie, a man who hates
unsolicited e-mail. He set up a list of
Internet addresses that originated the
offending messages. Then he automatically
blocked all mail from these sources.
The nation's Internet service providers
liked the idea, and asked to use Vixie's
system, which he called the Realtime
Blackhole List (RBL). This led to the
foundation of MAPS, a nonprofit
organization that has sworn eternal enmity
to spam in all its forms.
Today, MAPS estimates that about 20,000
Internet users and service providers rely
on the Blackhole List to block spam. This
includes some of the biggest outfits in
the business, such as Microsoft Corp.'s
free e-mail service Hotmail. And yet, MAPS
is still run by a handful of people, who
decide for themselves what counts as spam.
If you offend their sensibilities, you go
on the list.
And what does it take to offend them? A
handful of complaints. Three will do.
That's how many people griped to MAPS
about getting e-mail from Harris
Interactive Inc., known for its Harris
Poll public opinion surveys. Harris polls
over the Internet, sending questions to
people randomly selected from a list of
6.6 million e-mail addresses.
A number of sites provide their membership
lists to Harris. Users are warned about
this during the sign-up process, and can
choose to opt out of the Harris list. But
it'd be easy not to notice the warning.
Next thing you know, you're getting
unexpected questions about how you plan to
vote in November.
That must have happened to the unlucky
trio who complained to MAPS, which
responded by black-holing Harris. Now
millions of e-mail recipients, including
those who really do want to be polled, no
longer can receive the questionnaires.
That's because these people use service
providers that subscribe to the RBL, which
deletes mail from Harris.
My ISP doesn't subscribe to the list; I
know because I get Harris Poll e-mails.
I've never responded to them, but I don't
mind getting them. And I'm not sure I want
some guy in California denying them to me,
or to millions of others who don't even
realize their mail's being blocked.
For its part, Harris has filed a federal
lawsuit against MAPS and a number of
Internet providers who use it. ''They have
too much power, and they apply it
arbitrarily,'' says Harris spokesman Dan
Hucko. ''They're basically acting as
censors, and that's just wrong.''
The MAPS people say there's no First
Amendment right to send unwanted e-mail.
MAPS and the ISPs own their e-mail
servers, and can choose which messages to
accept or reject. ''Being on the RBL just
means I think you're friendly or neutral
to spam, and I don't choose to exchange
packets with you,'' says the list's
manager, Kelly Thompson.
To get back into Thompson's good graces,
Harris must send a confirmation e-mail to
every new person it signs up, and must
send such mail to the 6.6 million members
it already has. These are good ideas, and
Hucko says that Harris is considering
It may have no choice. The judge recently
refused to issue a restraining order
against MAPS, and there's much merit to
the organization's case. Surely ISPs are
entitled to reject some kinds of incoming
mail. On the other hand, should the final
say reside in the hands of a few
self-appointed Web cops?
Though I've grown used to spam, I wouldn't
miss it if it went away. That could happen
under a proposed federal law that recently
passed the US House by an almost unanimous
vote. Rather than ban spam, the law would
make it easy for consumers to sue the
spammers. A few fat financial judgments
against these clowns would be more
effective than MAPS's vigilante tactics,
and not nearly as creepy.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached by e-mail at
This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 8/24/2000.
STOP THE MAPS CONSPIRACY!