EDITORIAL: Bravo, Yesmail

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It's about time someone sued the Mail Abuse Prevention System.


MAPS' recent actions are a classic case of a group of people whose behavior has become at least as reprehensible as the behavior it originally organized to fight.


MAPS is a nonprofit group that maintains the Realtime Blackhole List, a list of Internet protocol addresses to "limit the transport of known-to-be-unwanted mass e-mail," according to information posted at www.mail-abuse.org. Companies put on the RBL are unable to deliver e-mail through subscribing e-mail administrators, reportedly resulting in 40 percent to 50 percent of their e-mails bouncing back.


How did MAPS get so powerful? Buckling under the weight of mass, unsolicited e-mail and desperate for a solution, Internet service providers and e-mail administrators began to subscribe to the service a few years ago.


Also, the makers of Sendmail -- an electronic post office program used by a majority of the computers that route e-mail -- in 1998 added a feature by which e-mail administrators could essentially flip a switch and get the program to automatically reject e-mail from any IP address on the RBL.


Somewhat understandably, a reported 20,000 e-mail administrators now use the RBL to help block spam.


However, the result is the equivalent of a company mail clerk shredding unsolicited commercial correspondence as it arrives. In the paper world, management would fire that person. In the e-mail world, management doesn't even know it's happening.


Certainly, e-mail has crucial differences from postal mail. It lacks the economic governors of postal mail. It costs very little to send millions of e-mails. And the sender uses receivers' resources to process it. Hence, the logically sound argument on MAPS' site: "There is and can be no right to use someone else's printing press and delivery trucks to send your message to people who have not asked to see it ... Most of us get a lot of junk paper mail every day, and most of us throw most of it away without outrage. But what if it arrived with postage due, and with no way to refuse delivery or refuse payment?"


Fair enough.


The problem is MAPS employs an unfairly strict definition of spam.


Unless yesmail is lying, its story would be comical if it weren't so infuriating and potentially tragic.


MAPS is a proponent of so-called double opt-in e-mail gathering, the practice of requiring Internet users to confirm their requests to receive e-mail offers by responding to a follow-up verification message. yesmail employs a practice called confirmed opt in, where the recipient must respond to the confirmation message not to receive e-mail. Talk about splitting hairs. According to yesmail, in order to get off the RBL, MAPS demanded that yesmail go back and double opt in its entire database of 12 million-plus e-mail names, an undertaking that would require coordination with 120 companies at an inestimable cost.


Anti-spammers perceive themselves as crusaders in a holy war. And with God on their side, they believe nothing they do is wrong, even if a perfectly legitimate company like yesmail and its executives get slaughtered along the way.


E-mail is now essential to doing business. And the Internet is no longer an academic toy where commercial activities are taboo. As a result, MAPS is an activist minority which now has power obscenely out of proportion to how representational its views are of the current Internet population.


And by accounts from a number of sources wishing to remain anonymous, it's become impossible to deal with the folks at MAPS.


They say it's now much easier to get listed on the RBL, there's no due process and it's much harder to get off the list than it used to be.


What to do?


Maybe it's time to find a way to charge e-mailers who deliver over a certain volume, bringing the economic governors into play with e-mail that work so well offline.


And let's hope the Northern District Court of Illinois rules in yesmail's favor.


It's time to put market forces to work and the misguided crusaders at MAPS out of commission.
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