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Get IT Done: Mail Abuse Prevention System's (MAPS) Realtime Blackhole List uses draconian methods to control spam

The pros and cons of using all or nothing spam filters such as Realtime Blackhole are debated


The question of what to do about unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam) has been an ongoing concern for anyone using the Internet. Mail Abuse Prevention System's (MAPS) Realtime Blackhole List (RBL) is one solution offered to Internet service providers (ISPs).

An ISP who subscribes to the service reports spam messages turned in by its customers. The organization manages a database of the domain addresses based on where the messages came from. ISPs can then filter out junk mail from domains listed in that database before it arrives in customers’ inboxes.

The potential for harm
The idea behind this strategy is simple, but it’s fraught with controversy in implementation. One charge has been of blacklisting without warning. MAPS promises it will warn with two e-mail messages and a phone call prior to blacklisting a domain. Yet several companies, including Web hosting service Digital Aquarius and marketing firm BBS Press Service, report being blacklisted with no warning.

Other charges include lengthy delays in removing someone from the blacklist. MAPS has blamed this, in part, on a shortage of trained personnel. In 1999, only three people were on staff, with 15 added during 2000. Some MAPS victims have labeled the service as “vigilantism,” while others have characterized it as simply being overzealous.
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“My concern about all of the self-appointed vigilante anti-spam groups is that they're sloppy,” said Dave McClure, executive director of the Association of Online Professionals (AOP), an Internet trade association. “I do sympathize with people trying to fight the problem of unsolicited commercial e-mail, which is a problem that the industry is going to have to find a solution to. But vigilante law is not a good solution.”

A force to be reckoned with
Companies and individuals using lists for direct marketing soon found MAPS dictating terms to them. Sunbelt Software, which makes products for the WinNT and Windows 2000 community, is a case in point.

For five years, Sunbelt had run a list to inform its customers about new and improved products, and it had received no serious complaints. Due to a mistake in procedure that Sunbelt freely admits, some of its customers’ e-mail addresses were added to its list without an opt-in choice.
In direct marketing terms, “opt-in” refers to a process by which the customer can specify whether they want to receive messages.
Fifteen people reported Sunbelt’s messages to their ISP as spam, and Sunbelt Software’s domain ended up on the blacklist. MAPS gave Sunbelt a list of changes it needed to complete before MAPS would remove the company from the blacklist. Sunbelt complied with all of the changes—which included going back to an older version of their e-mail database to a time prior to the “pollution” caused by the mistake—except for one.

The last demand was for Sunbelt to send only one e-mail message to its 600,000 subscribers with instructions on how to resubscribe to the list. In Sunbelt’s online statement, the company anticipated that only 15 to 20 percent of its original subscribers would resubscribe after just one message. Attempts to negotiate a stronger effort to retain their present subscribers found MAPS unmoved. As of this writing, Sunbelt remains on the blacklist.

Direct marketers acknowledge MAPS as a force to be reckoned with. A report issued last June by Direct Magazine mentioned several prominent companies as having appeared on the blacklist.

Rodale, publishers of the popular Scuba Diving magazine, initially launched its Web site through EarthLink. In its first attempt at direct marketing to its subscribers, it was shut down due to complaints that anti-spam organizations made to EarthLink. David Taylor, executive editor for ScubaDiving.com, stated that they couldn’t trace the shutdown directly to MAPS but acknowledged that it was a factor. It has since purchased the hardware needed to establish its own ISP service.

Making the situation especially difficult for list operators is that few, if any, of these companies in any way advocate sending spam mail. Most operate in an ethical manner including the use of opt-in techniques, with clear directions inside every message on how the receiver can unsubscribe.

A possible motive
Industry insiders have long speculated that part of the reason MAPS acts in the manner it does is to encourage legislation (and build case law) on e-mail abuse. In fact, MAPS spells out how to sue it on its Web site. For years, it has boasted that because a suit has never actually been brought against it, they couldn’t be doing anything illegal.

Yesmail obliged by filing suit in July. One reason this particular suit is so interesting is that Tony Priore, Yesmail’s senior vice president of marketing, is the author of E-Mail Marketing. This book has become the bible on how to conduct ethical, permission-based e-mail marketing. Reports state that talks between Yesmail and MAPS are proceeding toward settlement.

Legislation alone has never been considered a viable solution to the problem of spam mail. Due to the international nature of the Internet, this approach by itself will not have the desired effect. Spam mail continues to be, at the very least, a huge annoyance factor within the general public. For those paying for e-mail service by the minute, and for any company providing e-mail services, it has a real-time cost impact.

The solution offered by MAPS has merit, but only if operated in an ethical manner. To date, it has acted far more often as judge, jury, and executioner.
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