Email servers will choke, says Spamhaus

US district court ruling 'spitting in the face of CAN-SPAM'

The legal battle between antispam organisation Spamhaus and David Linhard, of e360 Insight, is heating up, with a court order that could cause a temporary ten-fold surge in spam.

Spamhaus has a user base of around 650 million, and its lists block some fifty billion spams per day, according to the project’s chief executive, Steve Linford.

Linhardt sued the UK-based anti-spammers in an Illinois district court after being listed in Spamhaus’ Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO).

Although Spamhaus maintains the Illinois court has no jurisdiction over an organisation based in the UK, district court judge Charles Kocoras awarded a total of US$11.71 million (NZ$17.7 million) in damages to Linhardt.

Kocoras also ordered Spamhaus to remove evidence of Linhardt’s spamming from ROKSO. Furthermore, the order says Spamhaus must cease blocking Linhardt’s spam, as sent to users of the organisation’s lists.

The judgement was a default one. While Spamhaus initially defended itself in court, it then withdrew as its position is that the Illinois District Court order has no validity in the United Kingdom.

Spamming is illegal in the United Kingdom, and Spamhaus says the Illinois court order is contrary to UK law that bans such activity in the first place. The organisation has also asked Linhardt to file a case in the UK, but this has not happened.

After Spamhaus said it would ignore the order for damages and ROKSO de-listing, Linhardt filed a motion asking the court to suspend the domain until the antispam organisation complies with the order.

CIO of Spamhaus, Richard Cox, says the immediate issue is that if the domain is suspended, the torrent of bulk mail hitting the the world’s mail servers would cause many of them to fail.

More than 90% of of all email is now spam, Cox says, and he doubts that servers worldwide would be able to handle a ten-fold increase in traffic.

Spamhaus’ Linford says the vast majority of spam is highly illegal. It advertises drugs and extreme pornography, and also contains different types of confidence scams and banking “phishes”.

Much of this spam is sent from compromised computers around the world, but is currently being blocked before servers receive it through the Spamhaus lists.

Cox says ISPs have an absolute right to decide whether to accept or reject mail offered to networks, as per the US CAN-SPAM Act. In fact, Cox says the Illinois court’s ruling is “spitting in the face of the CAN-SPAM Act” as it seeks to take away this right.

However, the sky is not falling. Cox would like to reassure Spamhaus XBL-SBL list users that the project will be there to protect their email, even if there is a short-term degradation of the service. Also, the order to suspend the is still not signed by the judge and thus not yet issued.

The governing body of internet domain names, ICANN, has been advised of the proposed order. It says however that it cannot comply with any such order as it has neither the ability nor the authority to do so. Only the internet registrar with which the registrant has a contractual relationship can suspend an individual domain name, ICANN says.

It seems unlikely that ICANN or Spamhaus will accept an order to suspend without a fight, Cox says. Linhardt may try to have the proposed order changed before issuance, Cox says, to include in it other parties. Should Linhardt be successful, Cox says it means a US District Court will have dictated to a non-US organisation what domain name it can use. This, he adds, is likely to cause great concern to internet users worldwide who resent the imposition of US-based ICANN as the sole governing body in these matters. ICANN is therefore likely to want to stay out of the dispute as much as possible.

One side-effect of the court case, says Cox, is that Spamhaus has been “inundated with mail” from people spammed by Linhardt. They are offering evidence of the spamming, Cox says, with formal statements that they didn’t sign up for it. There have been so many messages that Spamhaus has had to set up a special team to handle them, Cox says.

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