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[whitespace] Illustration Blocklisted

By Annalee Newitz

WHERE DID the Squid List go? And what about all the other subculture email lists hosted on the Laughing Squid servers--like the one for Burning Man barflies? For fans of exploitation movies? Scott Beale, owner of San Francisco web-hosting company Laughing Squid and "primary tentacle" of underground event bulletin the Squid List, started hearing these questions from users who weren't getting their daily doses of Squid.

"At first, I thought it was nothing--just a few emails that didn't get through," he said. But as days went by, it turned out that the only people who weren't receiving email from Laughing Squid were Earthlink customers. According to Beale, his attempts to contact Earthlink to find out what was wrong were met only with an automatically generated email that explained he was running an "open relay" for spammers on his mail server. He discovered Earthlink had placed his mail server on a "blocklist," meaning that no one with an Earthlink account could receive any mail from Laughing Squid. Beale's business had been damaged--and his subscribers stranded--without any advance notice from Earthlink or suggestions for possible fixes to the problem.

Beale had heard of spam blocklists and black holes before. Independent anti-spam groups like Spamcop and Abuse.net (and the less-reputable SPEWS) are known for blocklisting first and asking questions later. But would Earthlink, a huge national ISP, really use the same tactics as SPEWS?

Earthlink spokesperson Carla Shaw said Beale's experience is "industry standard" treatment in cases where Earthlink's automated spam tests determine that somebody might be running an open relay. Unlike traditional spam, which is basically junk mail, open-relay spam is routed through an open-relay server to mask the address of the actual sender. "The problem is that many people don't know that they have an open relay," Shaw explained. This was the case with Beale, whose open relay was very hard to detect and apparently the result of a bug in the way his server software had been set up--the danger was that spam-loving hackers might exploit the bug. But if a seasoned sysadmin like Beale doesn't know he's running an open relay, is it fair to blocklist him without informing him first?

Shaw says Earthlink's policy is to "protect the users" from spam, and therefore they must act fast when they find an open relay. Beale says he didn't receive any email about his situation from Earthlink until he inquired about why he was being blocked. After two weeks of back-and-forth with Earthlink, and fiddling with his server configurations, suddenly Earthlink decided to unblock Laughing Squid. Beale still isn't sure why, although Larry Fine, a representative from Earthlink's abuse department, says that subsequent tests on Laughing Squid's mail server show that the open relay has been closed. Fine adds that Earthlink rarely contacts the people who have been blocked because of the huge numbers of servers they block and unblock every day. "There just isn't time to do it."

In an environment where Earthlink and other industry giants like AOL rule the ISP market, more and more people are getting their email through companies whose blocking policies are vague at best and Draconian at worst. There is no way for me as an Earthlink customer to opt out of their open-relay blocking. In most cases, that's fine: I don't want to get open-relay spam. But what about the cases like Beale's, where mail that I want is suddenly blocked, and I have no recourse? I call that a free-speech issue.

Even if you aren't its customer, Earthlink can effectively remove your site and mailing lists from widespread circulation on the net without warning. Sure, I could switch ISPs. But Beale, whose Laughing Squid servers have nothing to do with Earthlink, doesn't have that option. His business will be hurt because of the (lack of) consumer choices his customers face when they buy email service. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Cindy Cohn says this isn't a First Amendment issue, since Earthlink is a private company and is free to do what it wants. But, she adds, "Obviously this is cold comfort in these kinds of cases and [is] increasingly worrisome when there are fewer and fewer ISPs to choose from and all of them have contractual provisions that allow them to cut you off for any reason or no reason at all."

And let's not forget another crucial issue: How was it exactly that Earthlink figured out Beale was running what they claimed was an open relay? By hacking into his servers (er, I mean "auditing") and attempting to relay mail through them. This means that every time Earthlink gets a spam complaint, it is hacking the servers where the spam came from to see if those servers might be open relays. Earthlink--and other large ISPs--could be sneaking into your servers right now. Don't worry. They probably haven't blocklisted you yet. Of course, if they had, they wouldn't tell you about it.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who personally knows several cool people who work at Earthlink (hi, guys!).

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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