An Australian internet service provider accused of allowing spammers to use its network could be permanently blacklisted by a powerful international anti-spam group.
The blacklisting of Tel.Pacific by SPEWS (Spam Prevention Early Warning System) has stopped its subscribers exchanging emails with users of a range of other ISPs.
Tel.Pacific argued the blacklisting only remained because it had offended a well-known anti-spam activist. If the blacklisting becomes permanent, Tel.Pacific users could find themselves electronically severed from thousands of other internet users.
The dispute has highlighted the power of unsolicited email blacklists and concerns over the criteria by which it judges ISP behaviour.
SPEWS is operated on a volunteer basis by a number of system administrators in the US, Europe and Australia.
The people behind the service remain anonymous and insist they do not make blocking decisions based on submissions or personal vendettas. The power of its spam-blocking service lies in the number and quantity of its subscribers. A number of large US ISPs, such as AT&T and PacBell internet operations, subscribe to SPEWS or similar spam-blocking lists such as MAPS RBL.
Their subscribers cannot receive email from other internet users who connect to ISPs listed on the spam-blocking services.
Tel.Pacific found itself on the SPEWS blacklist in November because it allegedly allowed Dean Westbury, who has been kicked off several ISPs for alleged spamming activity, to set up and use accounts on its network.
Although SPEWS has a stated policy of not being influenced by lobbying from individuals, the Tel.Pacific blacklisting followed a dispute between the ISP and high-profile anti-spam activist Glenn Barry about the activities of Mr Westbury.
ISPs that have barred Mr Westbury include Telstra BigPond, Connect.com.au and Optus.
Mr Barry, a long-time campaigner against spam who is active in several anti-spam forums, contacted Tel.Pacific in October when he believed Mr Westbury had opened an account with the ISP in Mr Barry's name. A Melbourne-based acquaintance with the same name as Mr Barry had received a bill from Tel.Pacific for internet access without having opened an account.
Mr Barry alleged Mr Westbury had opened numerous accounts in his name. He phoned Tel.Pacific's support number and asked for details of the credit card used to open the account, so he could determine whether his credit card was being fraudulently used. Tel.Pacific declined to provide any information, citing privacy laws.
Soon after this, Tel.Pacific's network was blocked by SPEWS. Now, almost two months later, the block remains in place although Tel.Pacific claims to have taken all reasonable steps to prevent its network being used by spammers.
In its defence, Tel.Pacific system administrator Dexter Plameras wrote to the news.admin.net-abuse.email newsgroup, which is read by SPEWS administrators.
"Glenn Barry or SPEWS has not sent email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org one single email with the headers that SPAM is originating from the Tel.Pacific/Rivernet Network," he wrote.
"We're in no way assisting spammers, which brings us to the question, why is Tel.Pacific being blacklisted?
"The answer is simply that Tel.Pacific would not breach the security of its customers by providing sensitive credit card details to anyone who calls up, and again I stress he did not identify himself as the account holder."
The posting included a link to a page of detailed information, which featured some of the emails exchanged between Mr Barry and Tel.Pacific staff.
Mr Barry denied the allegations and said he had been defamed by the material. He said the posting meant Tel.Pacific had "committed suicide" and would be "blacklisted for life" for the posting.
"They refused to talk to me," he told Australian IT. "What I'm angry about is that ... all they did is lie to me. They've cut their own throats now - they will be persona non grata on the internet."
It is not the first time anti-spammers have been caught up in defamation threats. ORBS, (Open Relay Behaviour-modification System), one of the first 'spam black lists'. ORBS was run by New Zealander Allan Brown, who also owned an ISP.
He became the target of defamation action from Telecom NZ subsidiary Xtra, a Wellington-based ISP and accounting firm KPMG, who all claimed they had been listed on ORBS as a result of a dispute with Mr Brown.
Mr Brown closed ORBS and his ISP, Manawatu Internet Services last July, after the three companies gained an injunction to be removed from the ORBS list and claimed Mr Brown had defamed him.
Mark Reynolds, who runs a Western Australian ISP, received a legal 'nastygram' from UUNet last year when he posted material on his website that claimed spam was sent through UUNet mail servers. Mr Reynolds refused to take down the material and has heard nothing more from UUNet since. Australian IT has contacted UUNet several times for comment on its ongoing presence in several blocking lists.
The Electronic Frontiers Foundation has cautioned against blocking.
"While members of the EFF staff and board find this unsolicited email to be as annoying as everyone else, we believe the two most popular strategies for combatting it so far - legislation and anti-spam blacklists - have failed in their fundamental design," the EFF said.
Anti-spam legislation recently introduced in some US states would not work, it said. The posting to news.admin.net-abuse.email sparked heated debate about the amount of attention SPEWS administrators paid to the newsgroup's postings.
The SPEWS FAQ refers anyone wanting to contact its staff to the newsgroup, saying it cannot be contacted directly. The FAQ says the service is maintained according to technical criteria.
While some posters to the forum said they had noticed action taken after postings to the forum or the SPAM-L mailing list, others claimed to have seen no evidence that SPEWS adminstrators listened to anti-spam activists. However Mr Barry was in little doubt that his longstanding reputation as an anti-spam campaigner would sway the SPEWS administrators. "What anti-spam groups do or don't do is based on information available to them," he said.
"I guess the anti-spam community will treat this as a defamation or a libel on one of their own."
Mr Barry said as well as being a target for fraud, he had been mailbombed and received abusive emails since he took up the fight against unsolicited email four years ago.
"(Anti-spam groups) accept me as one of theirs because I've done a lot for them," he said.
His Melbourne barrister, Daryl Dealehr, said there appeared to be grounds for a defamation case against Tel.Pacific.
"His position is certainly quite strong, on the instructions he's provided me," Mr Dealehr said.
It was up to Mr Barry to decide whether he wanted to take action, he said.
Tel.Pacific declined to comment on the dispute with Mr Barry pending its own legal advice, but its system administrator told Australian IT the company had received some complaints from internet customers unable to send mail to other users. Mr Plameris said he had asked for assistance on the news.admin.net-abuse.email newsgroup for examples of the spam sent through his network.
"I got some helpful advice in relation to Dean Westbury, (apparently) he uses prepaid accounts to actually do his business. And so one way we could've stopped that is if we put traffic through a central server and looked for specific strings... but I hadn't received any emails (with that information) from anyone," he said.