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Spam blacklist withdraws controversial fines policy

User group accuses Monkeys.com of 'extortion'

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Application security programs and practises

A huge row has broken out after the maintainer of a list of spam-friendly insecure sites floated the idea that lax admins should pay a deposit to be removed from the list.

Anti-spam campaigner Ron Guilmette, of monkeys.com, maintains a 'blocklist' of sites carrying scripts vulnerable to a formmail perl scripting vulnerability, which is commonly used by spammers. This list, along with one he maintains on insecure proxies, is used by ISPs and other organisations to block emails originating from particular IP addresses.

Until recently, if sites ended up on the list the only way admins could avoid having their mail blocked by the lists' users was to change their IP addresses.

That's because, according to Guilmette, it's very hard for an external party to verify a proper fix has been applied, so he advises admins to both remove insecure scripts and change their IP address.

He does this because admins often failed to fix things properly, So abusers of the formail.pl vulnerability - particularly beloved by porn spammers and penile enlargement merchants - continued to taken advantage of the problem, even after admins have sworn blind the issue is fixed.

So, offending IP addresses remain permanently on Guilmette's list, whose total now runs to more than 6,300 addresses.

Many of the admins whose sites end up on the list (remember these are people running insecure sites, not the spammers themselves) dislike the idea of shifting IP address.

Cunning plan

OK, said Guilmette, you can continue to use that IP address and I'll take your name off the list providing you first 'fix' the problem then pay me a deposit of $275. If there's no further problems with your site over the next year, I'll return your deposit - if not I'll use the money to pay my way.

Flame wars

When Guilmette published this policy on monkeys.com the fight kicked off.

In postings to news.admin.net-abuse.email, Guilmette was accused of extortion and threatened with lawsuits and criminal action.

In particular he got into a heated flame war with the directors of the International Informix User Group, whose appearance of the list resulted in many subscribers being unable to receive IIUG's newsletter. Some people in the organisation tried to get monkeys.com itself blacklisted and accusations and counter-accusations have been thrown between both parties and their rival supporters.

That's to say nothing of the abuse.

The thread is not for the faint hearted.

'Email is a privilege that can be revoked'
On the phone, Guilmette is very affable and we chatted for him for more than an hour about his controversial policy - which he's now withdrawn, even though he stands by its principles. If people think what he proposed is illegal let them prove it, he argues.

During the month he ran the policy, Guilmette tells us he never took any money from anyone. All he was doing was trying to persuade people that cleaning up their act and changing IP address (easy he maintains) was the way to go, he argues.

He still sees merit in the idea of binding over organisations financially to keep their sites secure. However he conceded our point that there's a potential conflict of interest if people who list sites as insecure also stand to gain financially from their insecurity.

We think the idea is open to criminal abuse and creates more problems than it solves, although Guilmette disputes this. He maintains his ideas are sound and indeed a forerunner of approaches that other anti-spam activists may take up.

He says his opponents, principally IIUG and a large German Web hosting company, failed to understand that "sending email is a privilege that can be revoked" if it means an organisation facilitates spamming.

Why care about the formmail vulnerability anyway?
Critics say that Guilmette is acting as a self-appointed policeman when he looks to take such powers on himself. He's happy to embrace this role and says he is influential only in so far as people find his list useful.

Guilmette has been involved in fighting spam for seven years and became particularly interested in the formmail vulnerability when he realised no-one else was addressing that part of the spam problem.

He estimates that 15-20 per cent of spam was generated through the formmail vulnerability, before steps were taken to address the problem.

Such spam is easily recognised because it's prefaced by comments along the lines of "below is a result of your feedback form..." ®

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