The Realtime Blackhole List, an anti-spam alert system, has stepped into a legal black hole of its own.
The organization that maintains the list has been temporarily prevented by a federal court in Illinois from adding a permissive email marketer to its roster of banned domains.
Officials with the Mail Abuse Prevention System would not comment on a suit filed in Illinois last week by Yesmail, an email marketer. The suit alleges, in part, that Yesmail's contractual relations with advertisers will be harmed if the company is blacklisted.
MAPS maintains the Realtime Blackhole List, which alerts system administrators to domains that may be a source of unsolicited commercial email. When a domain is "blackholed," thousands of Internet service providers typically respond by refusing to accept or relay email from the domain.
But for a company that prides itself on sending commercial email only to those who request it, Yesmail officials say being blacklisted is ironic -- if not downright unfair.
"We're not spammers. We're the opposite of spam," insisted Tony Priore, Yesmail's senior vice president of marketing.
Priore literally wrote the book on online promotions -- Email Marketing -- and a top theme of the tome spells out permissive marketing as the enlightened path to success.
In line with this philosophy, Priore said that Yesmail only sends its digital pitches to users who have requested mass email.
After opting in and choosing interest categories through one of Yesmail's content partners, a confirmation email will arrive in the user's inbox. If users decide they don't want the messages, all they have to do is hit "reply" and return the confirmation email, Priore said.
"We've already taken steps to make sure that we have permission, so then the question is, how many steps do you need?" he asked.
Apparently, one more, critics contend.
"The problem with the system Yesmail is using is that there is no extra step," said Rodney Joffe, chairman of Whitehat.com, another company that prides itself on permissive email marketing.
Whitehat employs a system that requires what Joffe called "double opt-in" -- a user must opt-in at a website, receive a confirmation email, and properly respond to the email by opting in once more.
"The potential for abuse that comes from simple opt-in is enormous," Joffe said. "I could sign you up for all sorts of crap and you have no way of knowing it."
With a single opt-in system, users must take action to remove themselves from a database. A simple script could repeatedly load a CD-ROM's worth of users into a database, forcing users to remove themselves again and again.
By contrast, Joffe said, Whitehat's double opt-in system requires no action on the part of users to be removed from the database. The company even includes the IP address and time/date stamp from which the request was made so that would-be spammers can be tracked to their source.
With its high-level connections to MAPS -- Whitehat's board of directors is staffed in part by MAPS officials -- the company is often looked to as the "poster child for the right way of doing things," Joffe said.
A demo on the site demonstrates Whitehat's vision of the straight-and-narrow of email marketing.
But Yesmail's Priore claimed that his company also wears a white hat.
"It's funny because we're the good guys in the industry," he said. "We're all about giving consumers control of their inbox. MAPS is fighting the wrong fight."
Despite a following of more than 20,000 sys admins, MAPS and the Realtime Blackhole List are not without their critics. In fact, "critic" is too weak a word for Art Coombs, the general manager of Internet Frontier, a Walnut Creek, California ISP.
Coombs takes pride in being placed on the RBL and called MAPS "the biggest threat to Internet freedom in the world."
"If (commercial email) is within the applicable bounds of the law, neither me, nor you, nor any third-party has any right to block it," he said. "It's anti-American, anti-business, and anti-freedom."
Internet Frontier encourages its users to employ client-based filtering systems rather than blocking spam at the ISP level, he said. The company maintains a manifesto on its site called RBL -- Power Without Accountability.
One legal expert disagreed with Coombs' outlook. The assertion that traditional rites of representation and accountability should apply to MAPS is misplaced, said Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
"Internet relay servers are not common carriers. That means (they) don't have a duty to pass on email," he said.
The RBL is a consensus-driven system in which "people are writing rules for computer resources that they bought and paid for," he said.
Both MAPs and Yesmail will be afforded a chance to air their sides in the Northern District Court of Illinois in a hearing Tuesday.
In the meantime, the company is safe from the deafening silence of the RBL. Yesmail's temporary restraining order lasts only until Aug. 2.
Jul. 18, 2000
A federal court judge in Chicago today issued a temporary restraining order against an antispam group, prohibiting it from blacklisting an e-mail marketing company with a 12 million-account database.
The Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC (MAPS) had threatened to place commercial e-mail marketer Yesmail.com on its Real-time Blackhole List, an antispam alert system read by thousands of Internet service providers, according to Yesmail.com.
The group said it would like to see Yesmail.com use a double opt-in standard for a user to receive e-mail. The double opt-in standard requires the user to request the e-mail at a Web site and then confirm again that it's desired by replying to a confirmation e-mail.
Chicago-based Yesmail.com, owned by Internet holding company CMGI Inc., says it supports protective measures for users but claims that MAPS is trying to strong-arm it into the standard.
"They are very zealous that we turn our whole business model around," said Tony Priore, Yesmail's senior vice president of marketing. "To totally change your business model overnight, just to satisfy these guys, is ludicrous. We finally had to say enough is enough."
Redwood City, California-based MAPS is a nonprofit group that seeks to "defend the Internet's e-mail system from abuse." MAPS officials couldn't be reached for comment, but a message was posted today on the group's Web site.
"At this time, we can only confirm that Yesmail.com has filed a lawsuit against MAPS, and a temporary restraining order has been issued," the statement statement reads. "MAPS will comment in more detail at a later time."
Yesmail.com officials sued MAPS late last week to keep itself off the blacklist, which can potentially cause as many as 20,000 Internet service providers to block its mail.
"Those are real consequences," Priore said "The whole thing seems so out of proportion and ludicrous."
In its suit, Yesmail denies that it is a spammer. Priore said the company has gone to "great pains" to guard and protect users' privacy.
Yesmail.com markets itself as an opt-in mail provider. Users must ask for e-mail to be sent to them before they receive it in their in-boxes. And Yesmail.com allows a user to remove his name from its mailing list at any time.
Priore also said Yesmail.com uses the double opt-in standard for some of its direct-marketing clients. Yesmail.com officials had discussions with MAPS for several months before it decided to file suit late last week, he said.
July 17, 2000
Yesmail.com, a Chicago-based permission marketer, won a temporary restraining
order Thursday against Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC (MAPS) in the first
legal challenge to the Redwood, CA-based group.
Issued by the Northern District Court of Illinois (Eastern Division), the order blocks MAPS from adding yesmail to its list of alleged spammers. It is good through Aug. 2. A hearing has been scheduled for July 18.
Several firms have found their Web sites shut down and their e-mails blocked after being listed on MAPS’ Realtime Blackhole List (RBL). The RBL, which list more than 3,000 alleged spammers, is subscribed to by 20,000 Internet service providers, corporations, government agencies and individuals.
In a complaint filed on Thursday, yesmail alleged that MAPS had announced its intent to include yesmail on the RBL.
The complaint states that subscribers constantly "check in" with the RBL while carrying electronic communication, and that if an Internet Protocol (IP) address is listed on the RBL Internet Service providers will not carry the communications.
By threatening to do so and by publicizing the threat, MAPS would disrupt yesmail's contractual relationships with its advertising business, the complaint states.
The complaint denies that yesmail is a spammer. Some consumers opt in by signing up to receive targeted messages; they receive an e-mail allowing them to cancel their membership. Others are signed up with a double opt-in in which they must respond to a second confirming e-mail.
Negotiations to prevent the RBL listing broke down over MAPS' disapproval of yesmail's verification procedures, according to the complaint.
MAPS, "in a classic display of over-zealousness, has unilaterally demanded that YesMail [sic] immediately commit to converting its entire system to the double opt-in protocol," the complaint states.
Yesmail offered to consider switching to the double opt-in protocol, but explained that it would need time to study the business and technical implications of the switch.
MAPS "has gone overboard in its misdirected and over-zealous efforts" through the use of the RBL, the complaint states.
Yesmail has requested preliminary and permanent injunctions restraining MAPS from listing yesmail on its RBL. It also asks for compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys fees.
MAPS lists a page on its Web site (http://www.mailabuse.org) titled "how to sue MAPS," hoping a legal case would establish that its tactics were legal. Yesmail is the first company to take up the challenge.
Attorneys for MAPS were unavailable for comment at deadline.
MAPS did win one victory this week--it forced the shutdown of an e-mail append service operated by Walter Karl, an infoUSA company under the Donnelley Marketing umbrella.
E-mail appends operate by guessing at likely email addresses – such as first initial, last name @ company.com – and sending test messages. Those that do not get returned are considered valid addresses, and are added to compiled databases.
"We are pleased with the outcome," said MAPS RBL project manager Kelly Thompson.
"MAPS believes that [appending services] are fundamentally flawed. Unless consumers gave [e-mail address data] to you there is no reason for you to have it."
According to Thompson, Walter Karl Interactive was receptive to MAPS concerns and stopped selling the service.
InfoUSA spokespeople were unavailable for comment at deadline.
Sources said other firms offering e-mail append services are also being closely watched by MAPS.
James Evans, IDG News Service
Tuesday, July 18, 2000
A Federal Court judge has issued a temporary restraining order against a nonprofit antispam group, prohibiting it from blacklisting an e-mail marketing company with an e-mail account database of 12 million.
The Mail Abuse Prevention System had threatened to place commercial e-mail marketer Yesmail.com on its Realtime Blackhole List. The list is an antispam alert system read by thousands of Internet service providers, according to Yesmail.com.
MAPS would like to see Yesmail.com go with a double opt-in standard for a user to receive e-mail. The double opt-in standard requires the users to request the e-mail at a Web site and then confirm again that it is desired by replying to a confirmation e-mail.
Chicago-based Yesmail.com, owned by Internet holding company CMGI, says it supports protective measures for users, but says MAPS is trying to strong-arm it into the standard.
"They are very zealous that we turn our whole business model around," says Tony Priore, Yesmail.com's senior vice president of marketing. "To totally change your business model overnight just to satisfy these guys is ludicrous. We finally had to say enough is enough."
MAPS is a nonprofit organization that seeks to "defend the Internet's e-mail system from abuse." MAPS officials could not be reached for comment, but a message was posted Tuesday on the group's Web site.
"At this time, we can only confirm that Yesmail.com has filed a lawsuit against MAPS and a temporary restraining order has been issued," the statement reads. "MAPS will comment in more detail at a later time."
Yesmail.com officials sued MAPS late last week to keep itself off the blacklist that can potentially cause as many as 20,000 ISPs to block its mail.
"Those are real consequences," Priore says. "The whole thing seems so out of proportion."
Within its suit filed in a federal court in Illinois, Yesmail.com denies that it is a spammer. Priore says the company has gone to "great pains" to protect users' privacy.
Yesmail.com markets itself as an opt-in mail provider. Users must ask for e-mail to be sent to them before it lands in their in-boxes. And Yesmail.com allows a user to remove his or her name from its mailing list at any time.
Priore also says Yesmail.com utilizes the double opt-in standard for some of its direct marketing clients. Yesmail.com officials had discussions with MAPS for several months before it decided to file suit late last week, he says.
A federal judge let stand a temporary restraining order against Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC (MAPS), prohibiting the group from listing Yesmail.com Inc. as a spammer.
U.S. District Judge Blanche Manning declined late Friday to vacate the order issued on July 13, according to online reports. However, the judge agreed to hear arguments over Yesmail's petition for a permanent injunction. And MAPS claimed partial victory in that the court will now allow the group to speak about the case to the press.
The temporary order expires on Aug. 2.
Dave Tolmie, CEO of Yesmail.com, declined comment.
Paul Vixie, managing member of MAPS, said in a statement that "We've been expecting such a suit, and we're ready for it."
Vixie claimed that "as a direct result of Yesmail's lawsuit and their own statements to the press, dozens of Internet sites are now blocking Yesmail's Internet traffic of their own accord."
According to Vixie, MAPS has made no public comment about the lawsuit before today. He added that "MAPS doesn't make public the list of companies in its database."
In its complaint filed on July 13, Yesmail alleged that MAPS, a Redwood, CA-based Internet watchdog group, had announced it was going to list Yesmail on its Realtime Blackhole list (RBL) of spammers. The list is relied on by many Internet Service Providers, and can lead to the shutting down of a firm's Web site.
At issue is Yesmail's refusal to adhere to MAPS' double opt-in protocol pending further study, according to the complaint.
Yesmail termed the spammer label "a false, misleading and demeaning statement about the quality, nature and character of Yesmail's goods and services." And it argued that an RBL listing would "prove devastating to Yesmail and seriously threaten its continued existence."
Vixie said in his statement that MAPS believes it has the right to "keep a database of companies whose practices are not consistent with our position, and to allow others to query that database."
Yesmail.com and Internet watchdog group Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC, reached an agreement yesterday on standards and safeguards for e-mail marketing that the two hope will be adopted industry wide.
As part of the deal New York-based yesmail agreed to employ a confirmed, or double-opt-in model as its standard for obtaining customer permission to send promotions. A protocol MAPS touts as its standard to avoid landing on its Realtime Blackhole List (RBL) of alleged spammers.
The agreement ends weeks of legal skirmishes and discussion after MAPS in July threatened to list yesmail, a permission-based e-mail marketer, on its RBL.
David Tolmie, CEO of yesmail, said that an understanding was reached over what both MAPS' and yesmail's goals were. "We were both trying to get to what's best for the consumer," Tolmie said.
"We expect yesmail.com's adoption of this protocol to be a catalyst for other e-mail marketers to comply with this standard," Paul Vixie, a managing partner of MAPS, Redwood City, CA said in a statement.
The companies also reached agreement concerning the use and auditing policies for yesmail's existing mailing list of 11 million names during the transition period. Tolmie declined to comment on the specific procedures that would be put in place to prevent fraudulent registrations.
"We recognize that as this industry matures, e-mail marketers need to continually evaluate what are the most appropriate and highest standards to ensure the protection of consumers," Tolmie said.
The principles, called Basic Mailing List Management Principles for Preventing Abuse, can be viewed at http://mail-abuse.org/manage.html.
In a separate action, MAPS was named earlier this week as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by market research firm Harris Interactive against a number of prominent Internet Service Providers. The ISPs blocked the firm from corresponding with millions of its registered online panelists after MAPS listed Harris Interactive on its RBL.