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Spam Kings by Brian S McWilliams

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Chapter 4. 

Spamhaus Takes on Sue You Net

Steve Linford, the operator of the Spamhaus Project, a blacklist of spamware vendors and the ISPs who host them, asked Shiksaa in October 2000 to join an elite team of spam fighters in a new project he was launching. Her mission would be to help compile detailed dossiers on the Internet's biggest junk emailers. The research would be published at Spamhaus.org as part of a pioneering effort Linford had dubbed the Register of Known Spamming Operations, or Rokso. His plan was to turn Rokso into an Internet hall of shame that would put pressure on shadowy spam operations by exposing them to the light of day.

More importantly, Rokso would provide Internet service providers with a much-needed clearinghouse for screening new customers. The Rokso list would include searchable records on each of the spammers, including descriptions of their junk email operations and spam samples, as well as contact information including aliases, business addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. To be included on the Rokso list, a spammer had to have been thrown off at least three Internet service providers. To get off the list, a junk emailer simply needed to refrain from sending spam for at least six months.

Rokso wasn't the first effort to focus public attention on the Internet's egregious bulk emailers. In 1995, Alex Boldt, a mathematics graduate student at the University of California in Santa Barbara, launched the Blacklist of Internet Advertisers. Boldt compiled a small who's-who list of chronic Usenet and email spammers, including their contact information. But Boldt stopped regularly updating his list around 1997, and nothing permanent had arisen in its place—until Rokso.

While the Rokso list would eventually swell to over two hundred, the inaugural edition included just twenty-five spammers. Among them was Jason Vale, who had stopped sending Laetrile spams after the court order and instead had been blanketing the Internet with ads for products such as Willow Flower, an herbal treatment for urination problems and other symptoms of prostate disease. The first version of Rokso also had an entry for 29-year-old Ronnie Scelson, a junior high school dropout who led a group of spammers based in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell.

Linford coordinated the Rokso effort from his houseboat, moored off an island in England's Thames River. Forty-two at the time, with a trimmed grey beard and a full head of grey hair, Linford had a hip worldliness that differentiated him from the more nerdy spam fighters. Born in England, Linford had been raised in Italy, where his father operated a factory in Rome that produced industrial platinum. Linford studied photography in college, but he dropped out to pursue a career as a rock musician. His singing and songwriting attracted the attention of GM, an Italian record label, which signed him to a five-year contract. The Italian composer Ennio Morricone even used him as a vocalist on the soundtrack for the 1982 Roberto Faenza thriller Copkiller, featuring Harvey Keitel. But a few years later Linford had a falling out with GM over the direction of his music, and he decided to stop performing until the contract expired. In the meantime, he worked as concert manager for much bigger artists, producing shows for the likes of Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson when they toured in Italy. He became an early user of Apple computers and was intrigued by how technology could revolutionize music production.

Linford decided in 1986 to move back to England, where he started a Macintosh software-development firm with his brother Julian, a talented programmer. Together they created UltraFind, a personal search engine utility capable of locating information in any Macintosh file. It sold briskly for nearly a decade, until Apple built a search tool called Sherlock into its operating software. As a result, Julian decided to return to Italy and take a job with the European Space Agency. Linford remained behind, morphing UltraDesign into an Internet design and hosting business.

It wasn't long before lots of junk email, much of it originating from Sanford Wallace's Cyber Promotions business, began arriving at Linford's various email accounts. He set up a special filter in Eudora, his mail program, to automate the task of forwarding incoming junk emails to the spammer's ISP, with a carbon copy to the Federal Trade Commission. Linford felt at the time that irresponsible ISPs were as much to blame for the emerging junk email problem as the spammers themselves. At one point, he added a signature line to the bottom of his Usenet postings that stated, "Spam would not exist if not for the greed of a few carriers. This site sends all spam back to spam carriers."

Although he stopped short of making it a personal crusade, Linford believed that if others joined in this task, ISPs could no longer ignore the spammers using their networks. In a 1998 posting to Nanae, he wrote, "Beneath Nanae is an iceberg so big it has the force to terminate spam simply by stuffing a terabyte of complaints up every ISP that gives you connectivity."

Linford was an early proponent of the idea of blacklisting Internet service providers and domains used by spammers. Although he was no fan of America Online, in early 1997 Linford found himself defending AOL's PreferredMail service against criticism from an anticensorhip activist. The AOL feature, a precursor to the service's current Mail Controls system, enabled users to turn on a filter that blocked all emails from a list of domains determined by AOL to be sources of spam.

"Although filtering them won't stop all spam, it will reduce it by ninety-five percent," Linford argued in a newsgroup for subscribers of Demon, a big ISP in the United Kingdom. "More importantly," he said, "the ISPs that stand up to Cyberpromo and Cybergen now ensure that the Net in a year's time is not just a load of spam with the occasional mail item."

In 1998, Linford continued to be a gadfly to what he considered spam-friendly ISPs. But his criticism of UUNET Technologies, one of the largest service providers on the Internet, almost cost him dearly. At the time, spam fighters on Nanae were keeping a running tally of the number of spam complaints unresolved by Virginia-based UUNET. As reports of abused dial-up accounts and open relays approached one million in March 1998, Linford and others grew frustrated with the firm's sluggish enforcement of its network abuse policies. To call attention to the situation, Linford created a banner graphic atop Spam Combat, a popular page at the UltraDesign site where he offered a variety of free, anti-spam tools. The image consisted of the UUNET globe-and-lightning-bolt logo, with the word SPAM inserted in the middle. Beneath the logo were the words, "We're behind 50% of the spam in your mailbox." Clicking on the banner would take visitors to the UUNET home page.

In the middle of March 1998, the fax machine in Linford's houseboat buzzed to life and slowly spat out a two-page letter from Taylor Joynson Garrett, UUNET's London-based legal counsel. According to the letter, UUNET was "extremely angry" at the blatant infringement of its rights and reputation, which the company considered libelous. The ISP's lawyers ordered Linford to immediately remove the banner or amend it so that it made no reference to UUNET. They also demanded that he turn over the offending graphic to them within forty-eight hours. If Linford failed to comply by the deadlines, UUNET would sue him in High Court.

Linford wasn't sure whether his little logo parody violated any laws, but he was quite confident of the facts behind his claim. So he decided to meet UUNET halfway. He removed the banner and replaced it with the words, "Yeah, ok, it's gone. But tell UUNET to stop spamming and start enforcing an AUP [acceptable-use policy]."

Linford figured that would send UUNET's lawyers on their way, but six days later Garrett faxed him another letter. Linford's site still infringed on UUNET's rights, said Garrett, who gave Linford until noon the next day to remove any mention of UUNET, "whether expressly or implied," from his site or risk further action from UUNET.

Linford thought the new demand was outrageous. He hadn't spoken of UUNET's threats on Nanae until this point, but he decided it was time other anti-spammers knew about the attempts to silence him. He posted a letter to the newsgroup with a link to a web page he had created that included scans of the UUNET threat letters. Soon, mirrors of Linford's "Sue You Net" page sprang up at other sites, and spam fighters began discussing a protest rally outside UUNET's headquarters. Linford was on the verge of making plane reservations to Virginia when cooler heads prevailed at UUNET, and the company pulled back its lawyers. Even better, UUNET shook up its network-abuse department, launched an initiative to close its mail relays, and finally began acting on its spam-related trouble tickets.

The banner incident was a big victory for Linford. Even though UUNET hadn't a legal leg to stand on, it did have significant legal funds, and Linford knew he might have gone bankrupt trying to defend himself. As he saw it, UUNET had decided that suing people who protested against its spam was a fast track to a public relations fiasco. Linford's innocuous little graphic had forced the Internet's biggest ISP to change course.

Following up on his success against UUNET, Linford moved his spam-fighting resources page to its own site, Spamhaus.org. For the first couple of years, it remained a relatively obscure resource known only to anti-spammers and their opponents. But soon it would become the tip of the spear in the fight against spam.

Shiksaa was thrilled by Linford's October 2000 invitation to join Spamhaus. After nearly eighteen months of haphazard spam fighting, much of it against chickenboners, she was eager to focus her energies in a more structured way against the biggest sources of spam. Perhaps it was just his British reserve, but Linford had always seemed to Shiksaa a voice of reason among the frequently strident participants on Nanae. Since he didn't charge for access to the Spamhaus information, Linford couldn't pay her or the handful of other volunteers for their efforts. But he did provide Shiksaa with a new, spam-filtered email address that she proudly used in her Nanae postings: .

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