Major polling firm Harris Interactive is suing several ISPs that subscribe to an anti-spam organisation's "black hole list", claiming the companies have been duped by a rival into blocking millions of Harris emails.
The lawsuit is against Microsoft, Netscape , Juno and other subscribers to the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS), the privately funded spam watchdog that added Harris to its list of spammers.
America Online is also named in the lawsuit, although it is not a MAPS subscriber. It has, however, decided to block Harris' emails. AOL denies any wrongdoing.
Harris chief executive Gordon S Black is so angry that he's now calling for government intervention and regulation of email systems, a rare demand from any Internet executive.
"We would much prefer the fairness of an American court system and a jury than a group of self-appointed zealots for Internet email," Black fumed. "We would prefer to have Congress set the rules."
"We see this as a clear example that you cannot trust private self-imposed regulation. I simply do not trust these people to regulate fairly."
Harris is a major polling company that has built a database of nearly 6.5 million people, which they call upon to conduct research polls on topics from presidential elections to scientific research. It is now blocked from sending emails to 40 percent of its participants.
About two weeks ago, said Black, the head of one of Harris' competitors, Martin Roth, owner of Incon Research in Connecticut, filed a spamming complaint against Harris. Black called Incon a "major competitor" of Harris.
Black claimed MAPS never investigated the complaints, and "without giving us time to review or rectify it", put Harris on its list of spammers.
A MAPS spokesman said Roth's complaint was actually the third spamming complaint against Harris.
One was from a Russian citizen and another was from Nick Nicholas, a former MAPS employee. The spokesman said a third party verified each of the complaints. MAPS said Harris would have to create a 'double opt-in' standard, in which a poll participant has to effectively be twice recruited to work for Harris.
About half of Harris poll participants are active opt-ins, who approach the company. The other half are known as passive opt-ins coming from the Excite network. Black said that every person who registers for Excite e-mail is asked a series of questions to register. At the bottom of the registration form are four questions already checked yes. The last is whether the registrant wants to be a Harris poll subject.
"If they don't uncheck the box, they are registered," Black said.
Passive opt-ins are asked in another email from Harris if they realise they have registered to be a poll participant and if not, Harris describes how to unregister. But MAPS said Harris would have to create a "double opt-in" standard, in which a poll participant has to effectively be twice recruited to work for Harris.
"We tried to talk with them, we tried to reason with them," Black said. "But they said it was our way or the highway."
Harris is perhaps the largest group yet to take on MAPS and its members.
Yesmail.com sued MAPS after it was placed on the black hole list. The two sides settled the lawsuit last week, allowing Yesmail to be unblocked.