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Australian Financial Review : October 17th 2006
FBA 034 The Australian Financial Review Tuesday 17 October 2006 www.afr.com 34 INFORMATION Anti-spammers under attack Spambusters are accused of vigilante-style online justice. Photo: MAYU KANAMORI Doreen Carvajal KEY POINTS Volunteers at Spamhaus.org block 50 billion spams per day. There is no precise international definition of spam. Blacklists are poorly managed. The New York Times When a torrent of unsolicited email arrives with cut-rate promotions for pheromone cologne and mint- flavoured Viagra, a volunteer foreign legion of anti-spam warriors is ready to fight back with its most lethal weapon: blacklists. But lately, online global guardians like the Spamhaus Project are facing fierce challenges to their blacklists, or blocklists, which are intended to help businesses and internet service providers filter out the worst spammers from Ukraine to the United States. The Spamhaus Project, which has battled computer viruses along with an online attack last month that shut down its website, is confronting a new siege. An American marketer complained that it exacted a vigilante-style of online justice carried out by anonymous, unaccountable volunteers. From suburban Chicago, David Linhardt, president of a small marketing company, E360insight.com, is pressing to suspend Spamhaus's internet address until it complies with an Illinois Federal Court ruling last month. The ruling ordered Spamhaus to post a website notice saying that E360 was not a spammer and to pay $US11.7 million ($15.5 million) in damages. The web address suspension appears unlikely because the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which presides over domain names, last week signalled that it lacked the authority to suspend the address of Spamhaus, a non-profit company based in London. But the legal battle underscored the tricky nature of defining spam and of creating standards for monitoring. Spamhaus, which was formed in 1998 and is operated by 25 volunteers around the world, is one of many spambusters that emerged to aid internet service providers and businesses filter spam before it reached consumers. But international authorities have yet to agree on the precise definition of spam, leaving these anti-spam groups vulnerable to challenges. Most European countries required consent from recipients before a sender could transmit bulk email messages to them. The US and Japan favour a freedom-of- commerce approach that does not require advance consent but does offer a choice to unsubscribe from mass mailings. However spam is defined, the volunteers are having an impact. In the last quarter of 2005, 203 billion email messages were filtered and prevented from being delivered; 61 billion of those were blocked by blacklisting, according to a report released in April by the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development, which has 30 member countries. The report also noted that the quality of anti-spam blacklists varied widely, partly because of the absence of a general code for evaluating them. It found that many lists were poorly managed, abandoned or of dubious integrity ± names could be added quickly, the applied criteria might be unclear, and removal from the list might be virtually impossible. Spamhaus is arguably the most prominent group tracking spammers, according to officials of various governments. Combing newspapers, public records and incorporation filings, Spamhaus keeps several lists of top offenders, including a registry of known spam operations, companies that it said had been ousted by three or more internet service providers because of spamming. ''Spamhaus.org blocks 50 billion spams per day,'' its chief executive, Steve Linford, said in an email, citing a figure that far exceeded OECD estimates. Mr Linhardt, the president of E360insight, never had top billing on the known spam operations list, but his name and his company were included in information about another person accused of spamming. Mr Linhardt said that when he tried to challenge his inclusion, he found it difficult to reach anyone directly at Spamhaus, forcing him to make his appeals in a series of increasingly heated emails. Spamhaus protected the identities of its volunteers and board members because spammers would try to attack them online if their names were known, said Richard Cox, a spokesman for the Spamhaus Project.