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Choosing spam over censorship

By Hiawatha Bray,
Globe Columnist,

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 even sillier.

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 them.

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.



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