The following article by Nick Renton was first published in the Age on 2001-07-31. It is reprinted here as the twin evils of spam cluttering up inboxes and blacklists blocking legitimate correspondence are still with us.
NEW PESTS ON THE BLOCK
A third class of pest has joined the ranks of malicious crackers and virus writers to frustrate ordinary Internet users. It consists of vigilantes - self-appointed censors who interfere with legitimate e-mail traffic.
They are motivated by an understandable desire to stamp out spam (unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail) but, in the process, they are greatly inconveniencing many ordinary users.
Their activities first came to the attention of myself - a small nonspamming e-mail user - when correspondents started to report that mail to me was bouncing with strange error messages, some of which actually said that my address was on a blacklist. Others merely implied this.
Admittedly, spam is the No. 1 complaint of many e-mail recipients. Spam is costing the Internet community money. It ties up resources.
One ISP claims to have blocked more than a billion pieces of spam last year, but concedes that millions more still went through.
One of these blacklisting groups was in New Zealand, but ceased operating a few weeks ago following a High Court injunction against the site.
One of the groups operating in the United States is at www.orbl.org, the initials ORBL standing for Open Relay Black List.
ORBL purports to be a list of mail servers that either intentionally or unintentionally have an open relay that allows spammers to send spam through their systems. Most spam is sent via open relays, so when spammers are aware that one exists, they will readily abuse it to send their junk mail far and wide. Even large ISPs can find themselves on such privately maintained blacklists if they are not compliant.
If a mail server is on such a list, the only way it can be removed is when changes are made by that server's administrators to comply with the blocking organisation's guidelines.
It is the hope of ORBL that bringing attention to vulnerable mail servers will prompt the system administrators of those servers to secure them from open mail relaying.
The lists have received the voluntary cooperation of many ISPs throughout the world in killing off e-mails attempting to pass through blacklisted servers. This would be great if the activity really stopped all junk e-mail and blocked nothing but spam. However, these anti-spam filters also block legitimate mail.
Senders get "return address was refused" or "access denied" error messages.
To receive a "sorry, your envelope sender is in my badmailfrom list" is a surprise and perplexes nonspammers with little technical knowledge.
Other mail might disappear without trace, presumably deleted en route, without giving either senders or addressees the opportunity to do anything about it.
Rejecting mail on the basis of a return address seems doubly stupid - spammers usually employ fake addresses and genuine users are being penalised - for activities over which they have no control.
Users affected are encouraged to contact the system administrator for their mail server and forward a copy of the bounced e-mail error message received. The idea is that the ISP should then fix the relaying problem and ask ORBL to retest the server.
This is fine in theory, but my personal experience suggests that busy ISP administrators are not really interested in these matters and do not understand why their customer is making a fuss.
They either ignore the complaint or send a standard computergenerated response, which is meant to be helpful but has no bearing on the specific problem.
Troy Rollo, chairman of the Coalition against Unsolicited Bulk Email Australia (www.caube.org.au), thinks it would help if governments passed laws making spammers liable for compensation to users - say, $500 for each unsolicited e-mail.
At present the behavior of the blacklisting anti-spam organisations is perfectly legal and ISPs have the right to protect their investment in equipment, storage and resources by seeking to eliminate the waste.
Sometimes, however, names are added to the lists with malicious intent. These self-appointed blacklist managers are accountable to nobody.
Innocent individual users are the casualties of this system. They are not normally members of Internet pressure groups and probably do not even know that such groups exist.
However, it seems desirable that all interested parties should now lobby the government to pay some attention to the practical problems arising both from spam and from unofficial "dogooder" anti-spam movements.
© Copyright N E Renton 2001
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