*Implications of Network Ownership

Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC has been criticized often by members of the direct mail marketing community on the basis that MAPS inappropriately tells other companies how to run their businesses. As the founder of MAPS, I appreciate this opportunity to say, “You’ve got us all wrong!” and to explain what MAPS is really here for.

An electronic mailbox is property the same way a postal mailbox is property – and other than in specific cases such as “free Internet services,” the property owner is the person who (a) reads the messages sent to that mailbox and (b) sends messages that purport to come from that mailbox. U.S. law gives every a citizen “the right to control the use and/or disposal” of his property, except for conditions such as common carriers, lifeline service providers or taxes. There is no such exception in any law affecting electronic mailbox ownership: Mailboxes are ours. No one can legally force us to use them in any way we don’t agree with.

More than one direct mail marketing company CEO has asserted that the existence and openness of an electronic mailbox gives implicit permission for anyone to send anything he wants to that mailbox and that unless a mailbox owner finds some way to explicitly tell direct mail marketers that campaign mail is unwelcome, it is reasonable to assume that it is welcome.

I do not agree, and I’m not alone. The laws and customs of the Internet’s e-mail system predate commercial e-mail by several decades, and there is an unbroken line of succession of the idea that no mailbox will ever be added to any automated distribution absent the expressed desire of its owner. This was true in 1970, and it’s been true ever since, and it’s true now.

I’ve heard that commercial interests are responsible for the Internet’s wide popularity and that without advertising, we old-timers would still be puttering around with a 9,600-baud research network. I’ve been told more than once that my preferred economic model is outdated and that I ought to move aside.

So, put on the soundtrack to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and play the part where HAL says, “I can’t do that, Dave.” The Internet’s success is because of many factors, very much including commercial interest, but far more important is that it is a “network of networks” where each participating network and potentially every node on every one of those participating networks is owned and paid for by some willing party.

There is no central authority saying who can participate: If you can afford to build a network, and if you can find some other network to connect your network to, then you’re “on the Internet.” I am a network owner and I’m here to tell you: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.”

Or perhaps: “Right to pass subject to owner’s permission.” Slice it any way you want. If I’m paying to create and maintain something – be it a network, a host or a mailbox – then I, and I alone, will decide what and whose traffic is welcome there. Paid advertising (including direct postal mail) is fine because it does not rely on vehicles I own. Unpaid advertising is theft of service – and I, as a network owner, choose not to enable, support or allow that theft.

So what of MAPS’ Realtime Blackhole List? MAPS is a network owner, but an unusually diligent network owner when it comes to identifying those distant networks that are unstoppable sources of traffic that MAPS does not want on its network. That is to say, unsolicited bulk e-mail in all its myriad forms. And MAPS’ RBL is a system whereby other network owners can decide to block on their networks whatever MAPS is blocking on its network.

Did you catch that? It’s completely voluntary. It’s a communications system among network owners, each of whom is merely exercising its right to refuse any traffic it doesn’t want.

To say that MAPS has no right to run the RBL or that other network owners do not have the right to subscribe to the RBL, one would first have to prove that network owners can somehow be required to accept traffic that they, as network owners, have decided they do not want. “How’s that again? Who decides?”

MAPS does not hide its intentions or try to cover up the dangers of being a subscriber to the RBL. Subscribing to the RBL can lead to dropping valid e-mail that, though not spam itself, is coming from a network that is an unstoppable source of spam otherwise. Subscribing to the RBL can get you sued by companies that think their right to send unsolicited bulk e-mail supersedes a network owner’s right to control the network’s traffic.

MAPS’ RBL subscribers are all told this, yet subscribers to the RBL number almost 40 percent of the total Internet. Why do these people ignore the obvious dangers and subscribe anyway? Why do you care – it’s their decision, isn’t it? Subscribers tell me the cost of accepting spam far outweighs the dangers of subscribing to the RBL.

That’s good enough for me. How about you? n

Next week: Why the Only True Opt-In Is Fully Verified Opt-In.

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