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Site blocking furore kicks off

It's our old friend MAPS again

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Updated Another battle has kicked off regarding site blocking by ISPs and at the centre of it - again - is the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS).

Civil liberties groups including Peacefire.org, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been angered by certain ISPs' surreptitious blocking of Web sites.

"If people want to block themselves voluntarily, that's up to them, but hardly anybody who is downstream from these blocking ISPs realize that's what's going on," said Peacefire.org Webmaster Bennett Haselton. The two ISPs mentioned were Above.net and Teleglobe.

Both are big ISPs and have smaller ISPs feeding off them, so if they block one site, everyone underneath them is denied access as well. Peacefire.org is pretty unhappy because it is one of those blocked as it has software that would override the filters. But recently, there seems to have been an increase in blocking and several high-profile Web sites including Macromedia have been effectively removed from the Internet for a large number of people.

Another frustrating aspect is that if a site is blocked, people will only see a "site not responding" message and not a "site has been blocked by xxx" sign. Presumably this makes ISPs lives a lot easier.

However, while everyone is shouting and moaning at ISPs, the core reason why this is happening is, yet again, MAPS. MAPS hunts for open mail relays that will allow spammers to use companies' servers and drive millions of people mad with worthless messages. If it finds one, it blacklists it by putting it on its RBL list.

What appears to be happening is that if MAPS finds a mail server that is left open, it also blocks that server's Web site. Presumably to get the company's attention. It appears to work.

MAPS makes its money by selling its list to ISPs, who implement it and save their customers from huge quantities of unsolicited mail. ISPs seem to like it and customers don't really know it's going on, but they wouldn't like the alternative.

The main problem however is MAPS' (and arch-enemy ORBS) attitude towards spamming. They will blacklist someone but not tell them - it's their fault if people have open servers. They will only remove someone from the backlist when they deem it right. But ahead of that (at least from our perspective) is that they will never talk to anyone, never explain or defend themselves and certainly never apologise.

Unsurprisingly, this tends to annoy people and every few months another big fight will erupt. There is no doubt that MAPS is effective at removing and preventing spammers and that is why ISPs use its list. Peacefire's fury at being blocked is on top of its ideological hatred of self-appointed censors.

The Internet will not be a free-for-all for everyone and it shouldn't be either. What will hopefully happen though is that people will have the option to decide their level of freedom on the Internet.

The only thing that will stop these frequent battles though is if MAPS decides to improve its public relations and stops offending people with its attitude.

Update

As ever with any story about MAPS or ORBS, we have been inundated with furious partisan emails claiming that everything is wrong - one way or the other. Just to set a few things straight. Many readers assure us that MAPS always gets in touch with people before blocking them. But to believe some, you'd think MAPS has a tear in its eye every time it has to block someone.

MAPS doesn't hunt for open relays (not like that evil ORBS). It doesn't block Web sites. It's almost impossible to getting on the RBL list. Sadly, it's impossible to know what is true and what isn't. One person will swear one way and another swear the other.

You may not agree with Bennett Haselton of Peacefire but that doesn't mean he hasn't got a point. The essential conclusion of the article was that MAPS needs to improve its own public relations rather than rely on its supporters to spam anyone that dares criticise it. That still holds. ®

Related Link

MAPS

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MSN blacklisted for harbouring spammers
MAPS under fire as Harris sues MS, AOL over spam block
Anti-spammers turn guns on each other
The ORBS/MAPS anti-spam battle revisited

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