Thursday March 15, 2001
By: Kevin Poulsen
Aggressive anti-spam measures by Dallas-based ISP Verio have stripped some
of the Internet's digerati of the ability to send e-mail, and Electronic
Frontier Foundation (EFF) co-founder John Gilmore is calling it censorship.
Gilmore's home network includes what anti-spam crusaders call an "open relay" -- a mail server that accepts and forwards e-mail from anyone. For decades, the practice was considered central to good network citizenship. But in recent years, spammers have begun hijacking open relays to multiply, sometimes a thousand fold, the number of junk messages they can send at once.
That abuse sparked a campaign by anti-spam activists to close the open relays, a campaign that Gilmore, an entrepreneur, electronic civil libertarian, and EFF co-founder, has little use for.
"It reminds me of the X-ray machines they have in airports and the security checks they put people through," says Gilmore. "It doesn't actually solve the problem, it just infringes on the rights of the innocent."
Even as commercial ISPs began tightening down their mail servers -- rejecting outgoing mail from non-subscribers, and forcing subscribers to electronically prove their identity before sending mail -- Gilmore kept his own mail server open to the world, a service he says his friends have come to rely on.
"Part of the reason my friends are using my machine is that their own ISPs' anti-spam measures prevent them from sending e-mail as they move around in the world," says Gilmore. "If one user connects to my machine from an unknown address and sends a message, my machine forwards it on. It's happy to. That could be John Perry Barlow sending e-mail from Africa to his girlfriend."
Gilmore says he shuts down spammers when he detects them, but acknowledges that some junk mail gets through his system. Late last month, one such spam message -- from a would-be entrepreneur offering professional spamming services to the public -- resulted in a complaint to Gilmore's ISP, Verio, from an anti-spam group.
Verio's sweeping acceptable-use policy prohibits open relays. When Gilmore refused to put fetters on his mail server, the company's security department slapped a filter on Gilmore's T1 net connection Wednesday, blocking outgoing e-mail from his network.
A Verio spokesperson did not return a telephone call Thursday. Verio security team leader Darren Grabowski declined to comment. "What we do is between us and our customer," said Grabowski.
Gilmore believes anti-spam efforts have gone too far, and impact the rights of innocent people. "Verio is filtering me because they were pressured by a pressure group, and they don't have enough intelligence to stand up against that pressure."
But the head of the anti-spam business that forwarded the complaint to Verio last month says the ISP did the right thing.
"It's been a very long time since open relays were considered acceptable on the Net," says Julian Haight, owner of SpamCop.net. "On today's Internet, things have changed considerably."
SpamCop.net lets Netizens easily and automatically track and report spammers and open relays, and maintains a blacklist of network addresses the company considers spam-friendly. Haight acknowledges the influence his organization, and other anti-spam efforts, can exert on an ISP, but he says no one has a right to operate a service that lends a hand to spammers.
"Freedom of speech is not 100 percent," says Haight. "You're not allowed to come into my home to preach to me... Open servers are responsible for making copies of unsolicited commercial e-mails and sending it to people who don't want it."
Gilmore argues that by making decisions about what to allow or disallow over their network, ISPs risk losing the common carrier status that protects them from legal liability for their customers' actions.
"Ultimately, they should be a pipe. They shouldn't care what content goes through. For them to say, well, we'll send your IP packets....except when you send this particular type of IP packet, it takes them out of the realm of a common carrier," says Gilmore. "That puts the entire Internet in jeopardy."
Tuesday March 27, 2001
You don't have to have an Internet account these days to know what online life is about. Between TV, ads and billboards, even the unwired know about fast access, shopping, America Online, lots of blinking ads, romance, more shopping, booking airline tickets and a few rounds of bingo.
Things were far different 20 years ago, before civilization came and trashed the place. Back then the Net was a small, closed community of pioneers -- the researchers, designers, educators and engineers who helped build cyberspace.
Eric Allman of Berkeley, Calif., who wrote the world's first Internet mail program back in 1981, compares the Net to a great little local restaurant that gets ''discovered'' and ''expands beyond their ability, to a mediocre place with lousy food and so-so service.''
Many of the people then on the Net are still around, but they don't use it the way we do. All say they shy away from the Web for anything but quick research. Some don't bother to read their e-mail anymore. And ironically, some cyberspace pioneers are (gasp!) rediscovering the joys of face-to-face communication in ''meatspace.''
These pioneers fly all over the world so they can hang out in conference center hallways and actually talk to each other. Last week, for example, when I e-mailed some of them, many were in Minneapolis for the annual meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that hammers out online technical standards.
Forget the often-hyped online communities and the Net's ability to locate and link like-minded people around the world. The pioneers these days hang out with a few close friends and colleagues, mostly via e-mail and exclusive electronic mailing lists.
Dorothy Denning, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, says the Web and Usenet (the Internet's original bulletin board system) are off her radar. This early expert in information warfare and security now prefers one-on-one e-mail interaction.
This isn't to say that the pioneers have turned their backs on technology. Far from it -- often they're using the leading edge of promising advances.
Dave Crocker of Brandenburg InterNetworking wrote many important technical standards for what became the Internet in the 1970s. While attending a recent meeting of ICANN, the Internet domain name authority, in Melbourne, Australia, he wandered around talking to his wife in Silicon Valley via a voice connection on his laptop, made possible by the conference's wireless local area network. ''The sound quality was excellent,'' he says.
But things like chat rooms and fancy Web interfaces are just noise to these power users. Like more and more of the rest of us, the Web to them is a place to track down data and accomplish tasks -- buying an airplane ticket or finding a restaurant's address. It's no social hangout.
Even the Web isn't necessarily the best way to find what they need to know. These longtime Netizens say there's no better filtering mechanism than the human brain. Gordon Cook, whose Cook Report was an early and important resource guide back when there were no easy ways to search online, uses the Web only for technical papers. Otherwise, he relies on friends. ''I have a better organized private network of folks to keep (me) on top of technical events.''
Howard Rheingold, author of the newly revised The Virtual Community, originally published in 1993, relies on his extensive network of contacts to keep him abreast of Net trends: ''Most of my surfing comes from URLs provided by my network of correspondents who know what to send my way.''
And sometimes pioneers are forced to rely on the 130-year-old technology of the telephone because, as the frontier becomes the suburbs, the rules invariably change. When I e-mailed questions to Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore, he responded via phone. Seems his Internet service, Verio, is in the process of terminating the connection he uses to run his network.
All because Gilmore, who co-founded a small Internet service provider that was eventually acquired by Verio, kept what's called an ''open mail relay'' on his system, a switch that accepts and forwards e-mail from anyone and once was considered good network citizenship because it helped the flow of e-mail. Today it's considered an open invitation to spammers sending thousands of trashy ads across the Net, and several ISPs no longer allow it. Gilmore calls this censorship. ''Punishing innocents if you can't find the guilty is not the right way to run a network,'' he says on his protest Web site, www.toad.com/gnu/verio-censorship.html.
If the technologists who created the Net are this disenchanted with its bells and whistles, can the rest of us be far behind? Will we all soon get to the point where the Web holds little lure and we want only to e-mail people we know, and then get offline and actually see them in person? What could be bad news for dot-coms could be good news for us as a species.
''This whole explosion has certainly changed my 'relationship' with the Net,'' says Allman. ''It may actually be for the better. I've recently started to remember that having friends in meat-space has certain advantages over cyberspace.''
But he's not entirely off the Net. ''If nothing else, it certainly does help when trying to make dinner plans with people.''