@Home-Usenet scuffle could be settled

Usenet is threatening to block @Home postings over spam rules. But a settlement may be near.

A compromise may be reached between broadband Internet service provider Excite@Home and members of the Usenet community who want to prevent @Home's servers from posting messages to the newsgroup service.

David Ritz, the Usenet volunteer who earlier this week called for a Usenet Death Penalty (UDP) against the service scheduled to go into effect on January 19th at 5:00 p.m., now says he will recommend extending the deadline for @Home's compliance.

UDP's are used against ISP's that consistently post high volumes of spam -- unwanted junk messages -- to Usenet newsgroups. It is the harshest punishment the community-run service can threaten. When a UDP is enacted, the volunteers who monitor newsgroups for spam prevent messages originating from the offending ISP's servers from being posted to the newsgroups. Because Usenet has no central governing authority, the punishment is enforced voluntarily by the Usenet community.

According to Ritz, 25 to 40 percent of the articles posted from @Home's service are spam. Of that, Ritz says 90 percent comes from unknown outside sources that are exploiting "back doors" in @Home's service to deliver the unwanted postings. Ritz wants @Home to identify and "close" the back doors.

In a statement posted to Usenet on Wednesday, @Home's network policy manager David Jackson promised the company is taking aggressive action to "decrease the amount of extraneous news traffic originating from home.com."

@Home 'sincere' in looking for a fix
Ritz says after speaking with @Home representatives he is confident they are "sincere" in their efforts. He said he will recommend @Home be given additional time to deal with the spamming problem before facing a UDP.

Although he would not specify exactly how long the extension would be, Ritz said @Home should have the loopholes fixed in "under a month."

"It is my hope that a UDP will not happen," said Ritz. "No one wants a UDP to happen but I felt my options were exhausted."

Ritz added that he had tried contacting @Home about the problem for 16 months before he issued the call for the UDP.

In the past, just the threat of a UDP has been enough to spur ISP's to action. Both Bell Atlantic and PsiNet were able to avoid UDP's by cutting down on spam. Others, like Compuserve and UUNet, did not comply and were blocked from the newsgroups.

Aside from being an annoyance, large amounts of spam can effectively clog up the newsgroups, making them nearly impossible to be used for their intended purpose of discussion and sharing information.

Although UDP's are supposed to be a last resort, some groups feel they are not an appropriate measure at all. Pathlink Technologies, which keeps track of Usenet spam and distributes free filtering software called UltraHippo, says it will not support the call for the UDP.

Punishing the wrong people
"You're going to punish legitimate posters," said Pathlink president Cindy Esco. "The percentage of people responsible for spam, compared to the number of Usenet participants it will punish, means it's not the best way to go about solving the problem."

Esco believes the best way to deal with spam is through extensive use of filtering tools.

However, just because Pathlink won't support the UDP, Esco thinks it will likely still be effective should it be enacted. In fact, both Ritz and Esco acknowledge the publicity generated by the call for the UDP has already begun to have an impact just by calling attention the problem.

"Certainly nobody wants to be associated with a UDP," said Esco. "They've made their point."

Excite@Home confirms it is in ongoing talks with Usenet to resolve the spamming issue. Company spokesperson Marci Gottlieb said Excite@Home is "very hopeful" the UDP can be averted.