Crusader Conducts Spam War

By Randy Barrett
May 20, 1997 8:35 AM PDT
Inter@ctive Week

Paul Vixie doesn't seem like a revolutionary, but in the rapidly escalating anti-spam wars, the soft-spoken software engineer is one of the generals.

For the past six months, Vixie has compiled a list of nearly 100 "net blocks," a range of Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses, including those of Internet service providers, or ISPs, that allow spamming through their systems. Vixie calls it the "black hole list," and it's aptly named. Any backbone provider that runs the net blocks at their routers effectively filters out the spamming ISPs and causes them to vanish.

So far, about 20 backbone networks accept Vixie's list, which goes out on a continual basis via a routing protocol feed. Sometimes Vixie updates the black hole net blocks hourly.

"I'm not trying to punish anybody for anything," Vixie says. "I'm trying to keep spam out of my in-box."

By all indications, the list is crimping more than a few spammers' style. Vixie regularly gets phone calls from lawyers saber-rattling on behalf of black-holed ISPs.

"We are actually hurting them. I'm getting noticed," he says with a hint of glee in his voice.

That notice and the attendant pain caused to targeted ISPs will likely land Vixie and his list in court. Vixie welcomes the fight. He wants to put the anti-spam argument before a judge and get the issue the resolution he feels it deserves.

Several networks, including America Online Inc. (, CompuServe Corp. ( and EarthLink Network Inc. (, have won individual injunctions against Cyber Promotions Inc. ( But Vixie's case will be different; it will likely revolve around antitrust rules.

Since Vixie makes the black hole list available to a group of networks, the cooperative effort could constitute a "conspiracy in restraint of trade."

He has been careful to have each recipient of the feed sign a hold-harmless agreement.

"It [the list] straddles the fence between conspiracy and consent; some judges might go either way," Vixie surmises.

"He's like a god," says Rob Bowman, director of backbone engineering at Exodus Communications Inc. ( of Sunnyvale, Calif. "He really cares about the Internet."

Not everyone is so enthralled.

"Paul Vixie is a very respected guy in general, but what he's doing is very anti-business," says Walt Rines, owner of Quantcom Communications Inc. ( and president of the Internet E-Mail Marketing Council.

Rines says the black hole list "hasn't made a dent" in his business.

Some, like Rines, regard Vixie as an "old school" Netizen against commercial use of the Internet. They're wrong.

"Commercial use of the Internet is a wonderful idea; it's where it's at," says Vixie.

What he hates is unsolicited e-mail. Vixie regularly contributes to the premier anti-spam site at, but he considers himself an educator before an anti-spam leader. Often, ISPs on the black hole list call him with explanations of their own spam headaches and ask to be dropped from the list. Vixie usually complies.

"Anyone willing to talk to me about their spam problems does not belong on the black hole list," he says.

Sometimes providers even ask to be put on the feed for short periods while they work to clean junk mailers out of their networks.

Vixie has put his network knowledge to work and is designing software to positively locate spammers, even when they've faked headers.

"We have a robot that is smart enough to ungenerate their crap," he says.

The software would reside on multiple servers and give network operators the ability to "triangulate" and pinpoint junk mailers. Vixie plans to beta test the system later this year and foresees a product launch soon thereafter.

Vixie's anti-spam campaign is all volunteer work. The rest of the time he runs Vixie Enterprises Inc. (, a 22-employee consulting and software engineering company in La Honda, Calif.

'I'm not trying to punish anybody for anything. I'm trying to keep spam out of my in-box'. Vixie: Keeper of the black-hole list of spammers and their hosts



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