Column: Anti-Spammers Get a Dose of Reality

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All is not harmonious in the once-unified world of anti-spam. The folks who usually have marketers in their crosshairs have opened fire on one another.


Good, and not just because it's fun to watch a bunch of holier-than-thou vigilantes beat each other up. These developments indicate that some anti-spammers are being forced to think in terms similar to that of the commercial interests they have fought for so long.


The controversy stems from a lawsuit Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC, Redwood City, CA, filed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in mid-April claiming that former employee Gordon Fecyk made off with company property -- an anti-spam tool called a dialup user list created while he worked there.


MAPS' one-time supporters are reportedly divided into two camps: those bewildered by MAPS spending precious resources suing a comrade, and those who are angry with MAPS co-founder Paul Vixie for, in their opinions, mismanaging MAPS by being a classic "rule-by-pronouncement" entrepreneur and then setting it adrift. Vixie reportedly relinquished control of MAPS' daily operations about a year ago.


"[MAPS'] transition from people's pet cause to business hasn't been pretty," one source from the anti-spam camp said.


This source added that MAPS' fall from its once revered-and-feared status isn't a development marketers should relish. The source said that in place of MAPS, less responsible spam-blocking services are appearing that may make e-mail marketing far more hazardous.


This source is decidedly not a holier-than-thou vigilante, but the "devil we know" argument doesn't work here.


After butting heads with them for so long, I've actually taken a liking to a few of the folks at MAPS. However, they and their one-time followers aren't remotely philosophically qualified to dictate business behavior anywhere. Consider this recent reply from Vixie when asked by this editor to verify some information:


"It's nice to hear from you again," he said. "Tell me, do your subscribers still think the Internet is government subsidized like the freeway system and do they still think that every taxpaying business therefore has an inalienable right to transmit anything they want any time they want?"


Ah, the classic "do you still beat your wife?" attack. Discussions with anti-spammers are always so mutually enlightening. The give ... the take.


Actually, "dictate" is the word that always comes to mind when dealing with these people, even the likeable ones. And dictate is what MAPS and its followers have always done, though "educate" is the term they prefer.


The person who first brought these folks to my attention spoke volumes by describing them as "a cabal, if you will."


And though marketers by and large have made a steady migration in their position on e-mail toward permission-based address gathering, the folks who participate in anti-spam discussion groups with rare exception show zero willingness to learn anything about why direct marketers do the things they do.


As a result, through MAPS, their aim was to dictate marketers' behavior online in terms that were often absurd, such as blacklisting selected marketers and demanding that they re-opt-in entire e-mail lists, an act that would decimate the list.


Meanwhile, anti-spammers' growing disenchantment with MAPS appears to result mostly from it operating more like a business than the labor of love it once was.


For example, one discussion group participant in the string relating to the Fecyk lawsuit said that settling the dispute amicably "would only be possible if both parties are primarily interested in protecting the Internet from spam, with their respective financial interests a secondary consideration."


And another said, "I had the naive idea that spammers were the enemy and we were all working together."


Ah yes, the Internet was such a happy place until gravity struck and all things Internet related, including MAPS, had to begin earning and guarding revenue streams as opposed to subsisting off inflated stocks.


Apparently, the idea that protecting financial interests must always be the primary goal for even the most altruistic ventures is lost on many of these folks.


Of course, true poetic justice would be served if conditions forced MAPS to begin outbound fundraising -- as in direct marketing. But that is too much joy for one man to ask for in a single lifetime.


However, maybe as a result of this fiasco, anti-spammers will begin to understand that they don't have all the answers and that education isn't a one-way street.


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