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EDITORIAL: Network Ownership Not Absolute

There are deeply troubling premises in the arguments of anti-spam group Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC founder Paul Vixie concerning the implications of network ownership and fully verified opt-in e-mail marketing (see MAPS Only Verified Opt-In Is True Opt-In, http://www.dmnews.com/articles/2000-08-14/9891.html). The ownership argument contends, at the risk of oversimplification, that networks are private property and therefore their owners have every right to determine who can and cannot send mail across them.

The Internet is analogous to a national highway system, but sections of it are maintained by private parties.

This system was begun with tax dollars, which, unless some magical source has recently appeared, generally result from commerce. With that in mind, the anti-commerce tone of those who have been involved in the Internet since its earliest days has always been difficult to stomach.

As for the absolute ownership argument, it’s difficult to imagine any sane person would argue that, say, if a neo-Nazi owned a network, he could block e-mail from people with Jewish-sounding names.

So obviously the network ownership argument is not absolute.

Meanwhile, the e-mail system has become a necessity for conducting business in the United States.

As a result, owning a network is a de facto pact with far more than just the network’s subscribers.

Few in mainstream marketing argue for spam. It pollutes the marketplace. The recent debate with MAPS and its followers has been over the nuances of opt-in e-mail address collection.

Vixie’s argument is the equivalent of saying, “Only horse-drawn carriages are allowed on my highway. It’s not up to us to adapt to the automobile. It’s up to the new drivers to adapt to us. After all, it was our culture long before auto drivers came onto the scene.”

Nonsense. Never mind that this system became a highway because of these auto drivers.

Also, Vixie’s argument for allowing only the so-called gold standard of fully verified opt-in hinges mainly on the claim that he has been “forge-subscribed” to sometimes hundreds of e-mail lists in a single weekend. So the rest of us are supposed to adapt our business practices because Vixie — probably the best-known anti-spam advocate in the world — has been the victim of spam pranksters? Please.

What’s more, dictating that fully verified opt-in is the only acceptable practice interferes with the mutually consensual business relationships of those who still practice opt-in, but at less-stringent levels — certainly room for a lawsuit there.

It shouldn’t be up to the rest of the world to conform to the odd anti-commercial culture that has evolved because the Net began as mainly an academic toy.

But as long as network owners are able to lord over their fiefdoms like myopic fairy-tale trolls guarding bridges, it seems highly unlikely that a commerce-friendly compromise will evolve for mainstream e-mail marketers.

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