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Ad hoc malware police besiege net neutrality

When does crime fighting become censorship?

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Analysis Over the past couple of weeks, white hat netizens have scored two important victories in their tireless quest to clean up some of the internet's darkest recesses. While the events are encouraging, forgive us if we don't jump for joy.

The first win came when Directi - a registrar criticized for making anonymous domain-name registration available to an inordinate number of scammers - agreed to beef up its policing of malicious sites. The Mumbai provider of a service known as PrivacyProtect now promises to suspend abusive services within 24 hours of receiving a legitimate complaint. It's also agreed to completely suspend the service to Estdomains and other customers accused of using it to protect owners of illegal websites.

Malware opponents scored an equally decisive victory last week when Intercage - a California-based network provider with more than 30,000 internet protocol addresses - said both of its longtime upstream providers were canceling service. The terminations came in response to a report that Intercage enables a rogue's gallery of customers to punt spam, malware and online (illegal) pharmaceuticals. Late last week, the company came close to going dark, but at the 11th hour was saved when a provider called Pacific Internet Exchange agreed to take it on.

Yes, the wins may make it harder for bad guys to spread malware, spam and illegal scams, but at what cost to a robust and unfettered internet? The inability of traditional law enforcement to crack down on online scammers - or for private individuals to target them with civil lawsuits - has unleashed a new breed of enforcement that turns registrars and webhosts into de facto gatekeepers. By and large, these groups are honest and well intentioned. But their lack of due process has implications for free speech, net neutrality and other concerns that ought not be trumped by our zeal to stamp out cybercrime.

Doubting Thomases need look no further than last year's summary termination of a popular security website by registrar GoDaddy. It came at the request of MySpace, which claimed a single page on the Seclists.org listed account names and passwords purporting to belong to users of the social networking site.

"It's a dangerous thing," Eric Goldman, a professor specializing in cyber law at Santa Clara University, says of the expectation that registrars and network providers make legal judgments about their customers. "Once they become the police, they are the only power brokers that matter. Their decisions will affect billions of dollars of investment decisions."

Fred Von Lohman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees the practice is a proverbial slippery slope.

"There's all kinds of groups who want to take all kinds of websites off the internet," he says. "Copyright owners are on the top of that list. The same thing is true of the Chinese government. I'm sure they would love to persuade domain name registrars to pull the plug on certain websites."

Indeed, looking to more established industries, it's hard to find a precedent to the arrangement that's become standard online. Few expect phone and electric companies to disconnect customers accused of engaging in drug dealing or organized crime. And in many jurisdictions, landlords who evict nuisance tenants must first submit extensive evidence establishing that there's illegal behavior.

Not so on the internet, where private groups like Spamhaus make pronouncements that exert a huge influence over some of the world's biggest network providers. Spamhaus CEO Steve Linford, who contacted us after this story was first published, remains unapologetic about his organization's blocking of Intercage and pointed us to this page offering some rather unflinching criticism of Intercage.

"The person who runs Atrivo/Intercage, Emil Kacperski is an expert at playing the 'surprised janitor', unaware of every new criminal enterprise found on his servers and keen to show he gets rid of some criminals once their activities on his network are exposed," the writeup contends. It also links to this page listing some of the specific transgressions Intercage has been accused of.

(Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to Spamhaus as an "anonymous group." While the group declines to name several senior team members and volunteers, Linford has always publicly revealed his role as CEO. We regret use of the word "anonymous.")

Similarly, GoDaddy and just about every other registrar reserve the right to pull the plug on customers for any reason. On the net, these groups often get to play judge, jury and executioner with little transparency or recourse.

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