Web vigilantes

Maybe the Wild, Wild Web hasn't become so tame after all.

          Maybe the Wild, Wild Web hasn’t become so tame after all.

          Last week, a federal judge refused to force an antispam group called MAPS to lift its blockade against mass email from Harris Interactive (yes, the people who do the Harris Poll).

          Let’s be clear here: Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) is a vigilante group. It has no government mandate to block spam. Those who subscribe to MAPS’ Realtime Blackhole List of spam sources whose mail won’t go through — including Microsoft’s Hotmail and America Online — do so voluntarily. And accused spammers like Harris believe MAPS acts as judge, jury and executioner — just like a vigilance committee in the Old West.

          And let’s be clear about something else: Though Harris may think MAPS is a gang of outlaws, US District Court Judge David G Larimer doesn’t agree. Larimer turned down Harris’ request for a restraining order to stop MAPS from “blackholing” Harris’ email until the company’s lawsuit against MAPS comes to trial. The judge could have issued that order if he thought Harris was right.

          Yes, vigilantes are out there. These aren’t anonymous crackers vandalising Web sites they don’t like. But they’re also not government bureaucrats enforcing the law. They’re something in between the two.

          And if you tangle with them, don’t mistake their lack of government authority for a shortage of power.

          You’re a legitimate organisation? So are they. You’re just trying to do business? They’re just exercising their rights to opt out. You’ve got rights? So do they — and they’ll take direct action to defend them.

          MAPS, for example, maintains lists of Internet addresses that spam comes from. Email services and Internet service providers use those lists to block spam. If your company’s IP address is on the list, its email won’t arrive at those mailboxes.

          In an e-business world, that’s power.

          And MAPS isn’t alone. Antismut and security software vendors can add your name to their lists, too. Sometimes it isn’t even your name, but a word on your Web site or the technology you use. No matter — if you’re blocked, you’re blocked.

          Can they do that? The legal answer to that question will come in a Rochester, New York, courtroom in the coming months. The practical answer is yes; they can and do. No one forces their subscribers to participate. And those subscribers can bail out at any time if they decide they don’t want spam or Web sites or other Internet technologies blocked. They’ve joined the vigilance committee, too.

          What if you do run afoul of the vigilantes? These aren’t lynch mobs. The first step is to talk with them. Maybe someone’s violating your email policy. Maybe you’re using a technology they view as a security or privacy problem. Maybe there’s a work-around.

          Or maybe they’ve already talked to someone at your company who didn’t take the matter seriously. Yes, take it seriously. This isn’t simply a nuisance, and it won’t go away. Kick it upstairs if necessary — and certainly before you start snarling at them about lawsuits. That’s a decision for IT to make — and it’s one you really don’t want to be making anyway.

          Someday, we’ll all know a lot more about what’s legal, usual and appropriate in e-business. A few more generations of laws will be passed, and a few more generations of lawsuits will settle most of the questions.

          But for now, there are vigilantes, and they’ll enforce their rights themselves — not waiting for judges, politicians and the other trappings of civilisation. Because the Internet territory really is still a frontier.

          And the Web is still pretty wild after all.

          Hayes, Computerworld US’s staff columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. His email address is frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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