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Gypsy & Willy - The Original Libertarian Bloggers

How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Willy Chaplin

No. 11

Punishing the victims! - II

March 11, 1998

A few days ago, I bumped an autobiographical column (the one you read yesterday Putting the shot) in order to bring to you an alarming development that I was puzzled about (Punishing the victims!). Since then I have been in contact with many individuals, most favoring the Black Hole List described in that column, as well as one Dave Rand, a very talkative "volunteer" for MAPS, the vigilantes leading this effort. I also talked at length with the technical folks at my ISP, getting their spin on what is going on. I learned a great deal, most of it VERY alarming. So, once again, I feel compelled today to push an autobiographical column into the future in order to deal with the War on Spam. This war, and I have discovered that it is indeed a war, is not being fought by governments (yet), but by gunslingers. Let me explain.

On the one side, you have the spammers, those who send unsolicited email to thousands or even millions of people. I'm sure you have all seen it. Some of it, like the get-rich-quick multi-level-marketing pyramid scams, are either clearly illegal or just on the fringe of being illegal (if they are selling a real product). Others, like announcements of the opening of a new site, are more like traditional advertising. All have the property of not having been solicited by the receiver, compromising the "voluntary" nature of the Internet.

You may detest these parcels when they appear in your mailbox, or, like me, welcome them as an indication of what's happening on the Internet. Some of you may argue that, since you are "paying" for them (either by degradation of services with your ISP or directly by metered charges for your Internet time), they constitute thievery and should be made illegal, much as unsolicited FAX has been. Others, like me, would argue that it is worth the trouble (and very small expense) to receive the high volume of scams and other dopey shit, in order to get the ads and announcements in which I am truly interested.

But there is another, darker side to this controversy. In order to ply their trade, the spammers need to "broadcast" their messages (again compromising an essential trait of the Internet). There are ISPs that allow such broadcasting, but most, because of limitations of available bandwidth, discourage or forbid it. As the number of ISPs who disallow it has risen, some spammers have resorted to "dirty tricks" which are probably illegal (since they involve fraud, deceit and MASSIVE theft of bandwidth). One of these, called relay-spamming, involves surreptitiously utilizing a third party ISP to broadcast part of the collection of spam. It appears to the recipient that the spam has originated from that third party, thus distributing the bandwidth load and taking some of the inevitable blame away from the spammer. It was this type of action, perpetrated against our ISP, Minnesota OnLine, which resulted in their being put on the Black Hole List which I discussed in a previous column (Punishing the victims!). This action has kept me...and the many readers of Teen Movie Critic - II...from receiving any new reviews for the past nine days. For, the transmission of any of her email is being blocked, in between Arkansas, where she lives, and Minnesota, where we reside, and cannot get through to us (it is being "bounced back to her after four days).

A second type of action arising out of the War on Spam is the denial-of-services attack, or email-bomb, which is directed against ISPs who are attempting to block spam. It works in a similar fashion to the relay-spam, using third parties to broadcast repetitive messages to the "offending" ISP (the spam blocker). As before, the third parties are innocent victims of those who would utilize their services to carry on their battles.

So far, I have mostly discussed the gunslingers who are trying to fill your email box with unsolicited trash or, less derogatorily, with email ads targeted to you and others who have for some reason indicated that you might want to receive them. But there are quick draw artists on the other side of the battle as well. These are the people who have, on their own, decided to build a list, called the Black Hole List, which carries the names (and other technical details) of those ISPs who allow spam to originate from their sites or DO NOT COOPERATE in stopping relay-spams or letter-bombs from passing through their servers. What does the failure to cooperate mean? That the ISPs in question have not done EXACTLY WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN TOLD TO DO by the Black Hole List purveyors! What they are told to do is to modify their software in ways that the vigilantes, for that is what they are, ORDER THEM TO DO. Who decides who is cooperating and who is not? As far as I can tell, from THEIR OWN WORDS, one man and only one man, Paul Vixie, makes that decision! Now, Mr. Vixie is well known to techies on the Net as a man who has participated in many technical innovations. He is obviously very talented and has become rich and a little famous because of it. Using this notoriety he has convinced, again in their own words, "volunteers" to not only participate in uncovering "offenders," but in distributing the Black Hole List in supposed "real time" (instantaneously) to "cooperating" ISPs all over the world. These latter network operators make the decision as to what to do about the other network operators who have been unfortunate enough to end up on the list. It turns out that this use of "choice" is one of the sticky little problems that have arisen in the Great Black Hole List Final Solution.

I will try to summarize what I have learned, pro and con, concerning this war. Understand that most of my information came from a long series of email exchanges I had with Dave Rand, of MAPS. I toyed with the idea of putting all his words (and mine) verbatim, on the Web. But, I decided that very few people would have the stamina to wade through this huge volume of verbiage. So, I have instead decided to try to summarize the pros and cons of what I learned for you. I tell you up front, that I despise vigilantes and had a very difficult time not picturing Dave wearing a white sheet and participating in a lynch mob. So, given my bias, I'll leave it up to you to judge whether I make the MAPS case fairly. First, their rationale:

Note: In order to make it easier for you to see both the MAPS rationale and my objections to them, I have provided back and forth links between the two lists to enable you to quickly compare the two. Just click on the asterisk (*) at the end of each item in the list.

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Given that my readers are all sharp eyed libertarians, I am sure you have already detected some serious flaws in this reasoning. But, let me summarize my objections and see what you think:

To summarize, I think that Dave Rand, Paul Vixie and MAPS are a bunch of cowardly, childish vigilantes. Unfortunately, due to their credentials, they are dangerous children, at least as bad as any of the people they purport to be thwarting.

I did take the step of discussing their actions with the FBI and they, like I, have serious doubts about the legality of what Vixie and his spawn are doing. For example, are these guys not operating in violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, which forbids the hindering of Interstate Commerce? And, are they not clearly violating the long standing interpretation of the First Amendment in applying prior restraint to legal communications, like those between Vivian Rose and me? If congress "can make no laws" doing these things, how can they get away with it?

Unfortunately, the FBI has bigger fish to fry. There are terrorists out there using real bombs rather than mail bombs. Besides, as a government agency, they must move with "all deliberate speed"...i.e. glacially...in dealing with any new problems. Finally, they simply do not have the facilities to deal with things like this. On a humorous note, when I asked the advice of the person at the FBI with whom I was speaking about what to do next, she first suggested the Interstate Commerce Commission. Yeah, right! Like THEY do have the facilities! When I offered that perhaps I should "go political," she first responded "Oh, no, you really shouldn't do THAT!"

"Hmmm!" I thought. "Is politics really getting so raw that it scares the FBI?" But, then, they have ALWAYS been afraid of public scrutiny.

However, she quickly recovered her composure and stated, "Of course, you should do whatever you are most comfortable with doing." Then, she brushed me off, stating that if I didn't hear back from them it meant they had decided not to do anything about it.

Finally, I have in my possession the complete unadulterated text of all the email I exchanged with MAPS and others concerning this matter. Indeed, I suffered through the tedium of dealing with Dave Rand, a sanctimonious prick, precisely to collect, in his own words, the "official" MAPS position. If I were Paul Vixie, I wouldn't let this guy speak for me. He has the morality of a sea slug and the wisdom that goes with it. If you would like to see the exact words he used and then I used to justify my characterization of their position, I will be glad to provide you with them.

See you tomorrow...

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Postscript: I just got off the phone with a very nice man from the FBI. Returning my call from the previous inquiry (and frankly, pleasantly surprising me), we talked at length about what MAPS is doing. He appeared to be very knowledgeable both about the law and about the Internet, although he had never heard of MAPS or Paul Vixie (no surprise!). First off, he advised me that nothing that I described them as doing is currently illegal. The constitution applies ONLY to the government, a fact I should have remembered. So, unless some action is specifically forbidden by law, it is legal for any individual or business to do. This explains, for example, why you can not do what MAPS and friends are doing, with email, to the U.S. Mail. It also explains why AT&T could not legitimately block phone traffic from Sprint or MCI for any reason whatsoever. There is specific legislation forbidding this.

On the other hand, we got into a humorous hypothetical discussion about what might happen if someone decided to make an Ass Hole List. Subscribers to this list, people like state.net, who do not like to be coerced into doing things, even for "their own good," might decide to block all email from subscribers to the Black Hole List. Jerry, the FBI agent, then suggested that the Big Boys, like AT&T and Microsoft, might just then remain neutral in this new war and let the Little Folks (ISPs like state.net and Dave Rand's) drive each other out of business.

OK, I countered, we could then start a Chicken Shit List, blocking all traffic from those who choose to remain neutral. Of course, sooner or later, warfare like this, with action/counter-action, would bring the entire email section of the Internet to its knees and only the Web would rule (hey, not a bad idea!).

Jerry did bring up one point that I hadn't considered. Having established that MAPS asks one to complain to your ISP rather than to them (MAPS is VERY clear on this point), he said that this is typical "hostage taker mentality." The hostage takers are not at fault, it is people who do not grasp the righteousness of their cause who are the REAL villains.

Which brings us right back where we started. So it goes...

To contact Willy and comment on what he has written...or anything else...write to willy@dreamagic.com (Willy Chaplin).

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