MP3sparks.com downed by links to Russian cybercrime gang
iTuneski jumps in bed with spammy host
Exclusive The popular Russian digital music retailer MP3sparks.com has scored an own goal by doing business with a web host that has been linked to an infamous cybercrime syndicate. Many UK users have been frozen out of the site as a result.
Access to the site for customers of major UK ISPs including Virgin Media, Plusnet and Zen has been difficult since it switched web host on 28 December. All the ISPs are members of LINX, an exchange that connects them to the wider internet.
A section of internet backbone, owned by US-held Tier 1 provider Cogent, has been identified as the source of the block. The firm was unavailable for comment today, but a UK representative said our request for details on the embargo would be passed to executives.
A spokesman for Plusnet confirmed that Cogent applies an across-the-board ban on traffic from MP3sparks' new web host, AbdAllah Internet ("AbdAllah" hereafter). Plusnet rerouted its traffic last night so customers can access MP3sparks.
The development raises new questions about the integrity of the MP3sparks operation, which is no stranger to controversy.
AbdAllah is a shadowy Turkish outfit that has been repeatedly blacklisted for providing sanctuary to malware, fraud and phishing sites, and spam. It also has strong links with the Russian Business Network, a notorious group known for pumping the internet with child pornography and denial of service attacks, as well as malware, on behalf of anyone that will pay.
Security firms including Verisign and Symantec have slammed their criminal activities.
The Russian Business Network empire was highlighted by a Washington Post report in October last year.
In response to the exposé, the St Petersberg incarnation of the Russian Business Network was cut off the internet by its ISP C41, but security watchers noted that new tentacles were emerging in Taiwan and Turkey.
A traceroute on the MP3sparks domain reveals Turkish telco TurkTelekom as the "last hop". It acts as AbdAllah's primary upstream link to the internet, as C41 did for the original Russian Business Network servers.
Leading spam tracker Spamhaus has traced the links between AbdAllah and Russian cyber criminals. This entry in Spamhaus' Register Of Known Spam Operations database plots the evidence tieing AbdAllah to a drug spamming scam run by Leo Kuvayev, AKA Alex Rodriguez. Kuvayev is Spamhaus' public enemy number one.
However close or distant the relationship with the Russian gangs, Cogent and other carriers have judged that they should block AbdAllah traffic, even if it includes a popular music retailer.
MP3sparks is owned by Russian outfit Media Services, and was named AllofMP3 until a Russian court ruling over unpaid royalties forced a rebrand in July 2007.
Media Services' latest decision to deal with AbdAllah leaves it open to renewed allegations by rights holders that it is a criminal element itself.
Media Services could not be reached today.
The firm claims copyright legitimacy via a royalties-collecting society called "Rightholders Federation for Collective Copyright Management of Works Used Interactively". Western collecting bodies do not recognise the organisation.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry has waged a sustained campaign against Media Services' alleged piracy on behalf of the record industry. In June 2006 it said of MP3sparks' forerunner AllofMP3:
Unlike all the legitimate sites, it does not pay artists or copyright holders so it is effectively stealing from those who create music. Like most things that appear to be too good to be true, AllofMP3.com is not what it seems.
AllofMP3 was reckoned to be the second most popular digital music retailer in the UK market, after Apple's iTunes. Data on MP3sparks is not available.
Both AllofMP3 and MP3sparks won acclaim from digital music fans for more than the rock-bottom $0.20 per track fees, however. The service also offers a much wider choice of encoding and higher bitrates, and has never bothered tethering music to particular devices with DRM.
News of the service pitching up in a known source of online scams leaves ethically-minded digital music fans with a dilemma. If their ISP can still access MP3sparks, should they continue to use the site despite its shady choice of friends?
On the other hand, many customers view their purchases as a protest to the mainstream record industry - which has made its own share of moral missteps - to catch up technically.
For now, the balance lies with the individual's conscience*. ®
*Not for customers of Canadian ISP Rogers, it seems. Unconfirmed reports say it is blocking MP3sparks independently.