AT&T caught in spam crossfire

A controversial anti-spam group is targeting AT&T in a bid to shut down marketers accused of routing unsolicited bulk e-mail through the telecom giant's Internet service.

A controversial anti-spam group is targeting AT&T in a bid to shut down marketers accused of routing unsolicited bulk e-mail through the telecom giant's Internet service.

The Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) added a block of AT&T's IP (Internet Protocol) addresses to its Realtime Blackhole List this week, stopping delivery of any e-mail from those sites to Internet service providers that subscribe to the popular anti-spam filter. MAPS was responding to complaints about unwanted e-mail originating from the addresses.

The blacklisted block of addresses is assigned to home-furnishings Web site BeaverHome, which has subleased some of its bandwidth to e-mail marketer MonsterHut.

Anti-spammers say they suspect e-mail traffic originating from the filtered block is evidence that AT&T has entered into a "pink contract" with BeaverHome guaranteeing delivery of unsolicited commercial e-mail in violation of the company's official spam policies.

AT&T, which says it is one of the five largest ISPs in the United States, previously admitted to entering into a pink contract with Nevada Hosting. The deal was rescinded after U.K.-based anti-spam group The SpamHaus Project posted a copy of the contract on the Internet.

"We've been complaining about spam originating from MonsterHut's (IP addresses) on AT&T for a long time, but that's a proverbial black hole," said Joe Harris, an anti-spam advocate who works for a Seattle-based ISP. "If they don't have a pink contract with MonsterHut, then AT&T is asleep at the switch and flat out ignoring the complaints they're getting."

Bill Hoffman, an AT&T representative, said he would not comment on any individual ISP customers or about the addresses added to the RBL. But he said the company does not "accept or endorse pink contracts," crediting the earlier mishap to a "rogue AT&T employee who acted out of process."

"These are unsubstantiated allegations. We have an acceptable use policy that does not allow spam and we enforce that," Hoffman said.

Under the gun to deliver profits, ISPs are increasingly trying to land the big-fish customers that can buy high-speed Internet lines worth up to tens of thousands of dollars a month. In the worst case, ISPs have resorted to pink contracts that allow marketers to send spam or host a spam-related Web site on their networks in exchange for "danger money," or a higher fee, because of the risk involved.

In addition to AT&T, PSINet last year acknowledged that it used a pink contract in violation of its spam policy.

The Blackhole list, comprising IP addresses suspected of originating junk e-mail, is used by an estimated 40 percent to 45 percent of all Internet service providers to block unwanted e-mail. Appearing on the RBL is a relatively common occurrence for e-mail marketers, some of whom have challenged MAPS, arguing that the list is arbitrary and targets legitimate e-mail as well as spam.

E-mail marketer Exactis, for example, has a temporary restraining order against MAPS for listing its companies' IP addresses. Harris Interactive, which sends millions of messages through e-mail lists, sued MAPS to remove its addresses from the RBL but later withdrew the suit and remains on the list.

For its part, BeaverHome is confident that it will be removed from the blacklist.

"BeaverHome.com has not sent a single piece of (unsolicited commercial e-mail) over the AT&T bandwidth that it has used since the fall of 2000," said Neal Martin, vice president of marketing for BeaverHome. "Any complaints regarding these allegations have been answered to the satisfaction of AT&T."

But BeaverHome has an unsuccessful history in the courts regarding spam. The company lost a suit against a Canadian ISP in mid-1999 after the ISP booted BeaverHome from its network for sending junk mail. The judge ruled against BeaverHome under the premise that sending unwanted e-mail was improper "Netiquette."

MonsterHut, which rents space on the AT&T lines from BeaverHome and has a close relationship with the company, is also in a scrap with its ISP over spam allegations.

The bulk e-mailer is battling with PaeTec Communications, which hosts its Web site, over the right to continue its contract. Earlier this year, a New York state judge granted MonsterHut a temporary restraining order forcing PaeTec to allow the company to continue to send commercial e-mail over its Internet pipes despite the company's objections.

MonsterHut's apparent leverage in court came from a signed addendum to PaeTec's acceptable-use policy, which gives MonsterHut the right to send "targeted" e-mails with a "2 percent" threshold for complaints. In other words, if MonsterHut sent out 1,000 e-mails, only 20 people could complain. In the event complaints amounted to more than 2 percent, PaeTec could terminate the agreement.

The dispute goes to court May 21.

Although MAPS would not comment specifically on BeaverHome, the company said it has a rigorous policy of trying to work with companies before they land on the list. To do this, it contacts all parties capable of stemming unwanted e-mail before it lists IP addresses on its blacklist.

"The vast majority of cases get resolved," said Anne Mitchell, director of legal and public affairs for MAPS. "We won't list someone unless there's a serious, proven problem. And not before we've confirmed there's a problem and they're not going to fix it. But people get out of the RBL all the time."

For its part, the anti-spam community just wants the junk e-mail to stop.

"I'm just tired of the junk," said anti-spam advocate Harris.

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