Peacefire anti-spam lawsuits

- Bennett Haselton

(Added 9/23/2003: A proposed anti-spam algorithm.)

On December 10, 2001, Peacefire won small claims court judgments against four different spammers for $500 apiece, under Washington State's anti-spam law. This is the beginning of what will hopefully become a long-running campaign against spammers by Washington State residents who know about the law and take action. After coverage in NewsBytes, Wired, Slashdot and KIRO 7 TV news in Seattle, this page is being created to answer questions about what Peacefire is doing next, and what you can do under the anti-spam law.

Our long-term plan | What you can do | Disclaimer

Coverage of our anti-spam lawsuits:
Seattle Times | Eastside Journal | NewsBytes | Wired News
Slashdot | BusinessWeek | Associated Press | ABC News

A note about "fighting spam" by blocking Web sites

Prior to December 2000, it was a little-known fact that some large Internet companies were blocking their customers from accessing spammers' Web sites. In fact, the two biggest companies which engaged in this practice, AboveNet and TeleGlobe, were blocking sites on a secret "blacklist" that included not only spammers, but sites selling spam software or doing business with spammers. (The Internet Billing Company, or IBill, was blacklisted once because some of their clients were spammers, even though IBill was not connected to the spam.) AboveNet stopped blocking Web sites immediately after Slashdot ran a story about their practice, but TeleGlobe is still blocking Web sites on the boycott list. These are not like ISPs that sell "family friendly Internet access" to customers who sign up to request Web sites to be blocked; these companies are selling high-end Internet connections to businesses and third-party resellers, without disclosing that Web sites on the "boycott list" are being blocked. When a downstream user tries to access a blocked Web site, they simply get an error message from their browser saying "This site is not responding", so they never find out that any blocking is being done.

We disavow the practice of "stealth blocking", and recommend legal action as one alternative means of combatting spam. Fighting spam is important but it should not be done at the expense of deceiving customers. After AboveNet's practices of "stealth blocking" were made public, a coalition of free speech groups including Peacefire as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and, issued a statement against stealth blocking as a whole: "Coalition statement against 'stealth blocking'" (May 17, 2001).

The blacklist used by TeleGlobe and, previously, by AboveNet, is the Realtime Blackhole List published by the Mail Abuse Prevention System in California. While we support the educational work done by MAPS and some of the measures they have taken to limit spam, we disavow their practice of working with ISPs to block Web sites. (It is a common misconception that the RBL is only used to block incoming mail; MAPS also publishes the RBL in a format to be used for Web blocking.) Users of the RBL should also be aware that MAPS statement on their Web page, that the RBL is a list of networks used either to originate or relay spam, is inaccurate. IP addresses on the RBL are frequently blocked for advertising bulk email software or advertising business relationships with spammers (so blocking these addresses, of course, does not result in any actual spam being filtered, since they're not sending any).

Also, if an ISP fails to remove these sites as a result of pressure from MAPS, MAPS frequently adds other of the ISP's address blocks to the list to apply additional pressure, even if the sites at the other addresses have nothing to do with the original complaint. This "escalation" practice is known to some within the "spam-fighting" community but is not disclosed anywhere on the MAPS Web site. This is how got blocked at one point by the RBL, because of other sites hosted by our ISP, which were not spamming, but were doing business with spammers. Our ISP got out of the RBL as a result of legal action, but Peacefire, like most companies and organizations on the RBL, did not find out how the RBL really worked until we got blocked.

I think that blocking Web sites that sell spam software is pointless (it doesn't usually prevent spammers from getting the software, and it doesn't block any actual spam from being sent), but that's actually beside the point -- if someone wants to block themselves from viewing Web sites that sell spam software, or Web sites hosted in the Southern Hemisphere, that's their right to do so. However, companies should not silently block Web sites without telling their customers that their Internet access is filtered.

Pages about specific judges

Pages summarizing experiences with specific judges who have heard anti-spam cases.

- Bennett Haselton