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Latest Anti-Spam Weapon: Poetry?

A former executive of anti-spam group Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC has launched a service that relies on a poem, of all things, to help mail administrators combat the increasing glut of bulk unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Dubbed Habeas Inc., the Palo Alto, CA, company debuted yesterday with a twist on trusted-sender and white-list anti-spam solutions — those where e-mail from known and trusted sources gets automatically accepted. Habeas copyrighted a small poem that licensees can add to their headers, the top portion of their outgoing e-mail that identifies the sender.

Under Habeas' business model, mail administrators can configure their systems so they check all incoming e-mail for Habeas' header and automatically accept mail that contains it, lightening the load on their main servers.

One of the many tricks spammers use to get their mail past administrators is to forge headers so their e-mail looks like it comes from someone else. Under Habeas' plan, spammers who forge its header can be prosecuted under trademark and copyright law. According to Habeas, it can seek penalties of $1 million or more, shut down offenders through injunctions and refer them for criminal prosecution in severe cases.

“Where other services help to identify which is, or is likely to be, spam, we identify the e-mail you want,” said Anne Mitchell, president/CEO of Habeas.

Habeas will sell its license only to bulk e-mailers who employ fully verified or double opt in, the e-mail list-building process under which list owners send new subscribers or registrants “thank you for subscribing” e-mails to which subscribers must reply in order to stay on the list. Anti-spammers argue that fully verified, or double opt in, is the only foolproof way to combat spam since it makes subscribing people to e-mail lists without their permission impossible.

However, unlike Mitchell's former employer MAPS, Habeas is apparently not trying to force the double opt-in standard on marketers.

“We don't tell people 'if you don't see our sender warrant in an e-mail, then you should reject that e-mail,' ” Mitchell said. “[And] we're not saying, 'bulk houses, if you don't do double opt in, no one's going to take your e-mail.' “

Also unlike other anti-spam services, Habeas welcomes bulk mailers that have some fully verified opt-in lists to license its headers for those lists.

“Just segment your lists. For the ones that use fully verified opt in, go ahead and use our headers,” she said. “We're not saying 'our way or no way.'”

Mitchell said that spam is becoming such a problem that even permission-based bulk mail is getting blocked.

Habeas is talking with all the major ISPs, she said, but she declined to name any that may sign on.

“We expect several large ISPs to adopt within the quarter,” she said.

Until May, Mitchell was legal affairs director for MAPS, an anti-spam group that many in the direct marketing e-mail industry despised. To many direct marketers, MAPS outwardly seemed to use capricious and overly strict standards when deciding to add e-mailers' IP addresses to its Realtime Blackhole List of suspected spammers, a list that mail administrators used to filter out unwanted mail.

However, MAPS' reputation in the anti-spam community has suffered greatly in the past year, and in particular in April when it filed a lawsuit in Winnipeg, Manitoba, against former employee Gordon Fecyk, alleging that he made off with company property while he worked there. As a result, sources say, MAPS' executives, of which there are fewer than 10, are so busy infighting that they haven't the time to fight spam.

Meanwhile, Habeas will operate a blocking list, but only of IP addresses that have forged a Habeas header, Mitchell said.

“The only thing it says about that IP address is that we have in hand e-mail from that IP address which has counterfeited our trademark,” she said.

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