RBL -- Power Without Accountability

The Real Internet, or The "Vixie/Rand-approved" Internet?
If a million people or a hundred ISPs are doing a wrong thing, it is still a wrong thing!
Sometimes 'majority' only means that all the fools are on the same side.

YES!! Metromedia Fiber Network (AboveNet) stock sinks to 32¢ (9/17/01) !!
(What is that thing? Could it be the ?)

"...(P)rivate companies have given themselves the right to tell others what they can read, see and study based on their own agendas rather than any objective criteria."--Wallace Wang

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."--Ben Franklin

The problem from a similar perspective, expressed articulately and in rich technical detail, by another provider, Netside Internet in Florida.

Click here to read what the Electronic Frontier Foundation has to say about 'spam' (10/16/01).

"All of us get what seems like tons of unsolicited e-mail [messages]. And it takes up our time, takes up our equipment and our computers. And somewhere along the way, if someone is doing that to generate a profit, then we need to take the profit out of his success." (U.S. Representative Gene Green, D-29, Texas, in an interview with 'Smart Computing', Nov. 2001, attempting to defend HR718. Note that there is no mention of anything illegal, just the anti-business attitude that somehow profit is bad.)

RBL is now trying to claim that the Cato Institute supports it. They do so by quoting, out of context, parts of just two sentences taken from page 6 of the 15 page report. Read the Executive Summary of the actual Cato Institute report and see if you think they support RBL (you can get the entire report at the bottom of the Executive Summary). The title alone ("Why Canning 'Spam' is a Bad Idea") should tell you all you really need to know. (8/10/01)

The phrase "stealth blocking" has recently been applied to the actions of AboveNet, and by extension, RBL. To learn more about stealth blocking, and what happened to an organization known as Peacefire, read this and this.

And another lawsuit against RBL. See what Exactis, and a US District Court in Denver, have to say about RBL by clicking here and here.

And more lawsuits against RBL. Read about the suit filed by Black Ice, a small New Hampshire software company, by clicking here and here (5/25/01).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation thinks filtering email is censorship.

And this excellent column from the Boston Globe, dated 8/24/00.

NEW 8/31/01While certainly not a perfect solution, RBL has yielded in two lawsuits by removing the relevant IP addresses from its list. Read about the settlements with Media3 and Harris Interactive here. We will leave the original information and links below so that the background of these two cases is available.

12/13/2000 More innocent bystanders victimized by RBL. Read about the Media3 lawsuit against RBL (very long article--it will take a while to display).

And in a law suit filed in Federal District Court in Rochester, New York, on July 31st, 2000, Harris Interactive (a division of the large, global company well known for the popular Harris public opinion polls) has sued AOL, MSN and MAPS/RBL on a variety of charges. To quote, in part, Gordon S. Black, the CEO of Harris Interactive, "Today marks a major first step in our effort to ensure full protection against unfair and undemocratic practices that can emerge as a result of self-regulation by organizations such as MAPS." He continued, "Self-appointed groups such as MAPS cannot continue to dictate the standards that affect hundreds of millions of people and billions of dollars of commerce....I think the process is an abomination. The idea that a couple of people operating with no oversight and recourse effectively can stop us from doing interstate business is a horrifying thought. We're not going to live in that world". Subsequently, AOL was dropped from the suit because they do not use RBL to filter email. AOL was itself victimized because part of its own network connectivity went through AboveNet in San Jose (see much more below about AboveNet); in response, AOL has terminated its connection to AboveNet. For related articles, see this article and this article.

UPDATE! AOL certainly hasn't dropped all its connectivity with AboveNet; they may have shifted it around, but AOL is still trafficking through AboveNet, and thus they are still blocking their users from parts of the Internet because of AboveNet's use of RBL. Also, on September 12th, 2000, Harris Interactive dropped its lawsuit after its relevant IP addresses were removed from the RBL list.

Before reading on, a priority ladder may be useful to help visualize the order of precedence, from the perspective of RBL, of the law, legitimate business, RBL, and you, the innocent bystander:

10. RBL
9. Providers who filter customer email
8. RBL sympathizers
0. God
0. Federal Law
0. State law
0. Business
0. You
-1. Anyone who stands up for the rights of business

RBL maliciously filters, or facilitates filtering, email and other Internet traffic, including some web sites. They contend they are making the world safe from junk email; they are not. And they do what they do, not because of any duly constituted authority, but simply because the open nature of the Internet itself enables them to do so.

What starts the process?

What happens is that some recipient of an email objects to receiving it and complains to the vigilante organization (think we're the only one to call them vigilantes? Check this web page) called the Realtime Black Hole (RBL). What RBL does is add a reference to the source of the alleged offending email to an electronic list. That list is then utilized by some online providers (but by no means all) as a filter for incoming email.

(Actually, with many of the complainers, it's the complaining itself which seems to be important, not the email message. They obviously are not interested in the content of any junk message, they certainly have enough intelligence to configure their email programs to simply discard junk messages but they don't do so, and many seem to have abundant Internet access, probably through their employer, who often is an unwitting accomplice. One has to wonder why it's so important to them to complain. The only reason that stands up is that these are little people who are not concerned that their attempts at self-empowerment infringe on the rights of others who have different views.)

This might not be a bad idea if it was focused on the actual originator of the email. However, what often happens is that the actual point of origination of the offending email can't be found (email return addresses are easily faked or omitted entirely). That in no way deters RBL. They do not require that the complainer make any attempt at all to stop the offending email; all the complainer need do is complain. And the result is that they are then free to "shoot the messenger", and you are "guilty by association". You are guilty because someone you don't know sent an email to someone else that you also don't know.

There clearly is considerable sentiment against junk email. We all would prefer that we not receive any. But not liking it does not make it illegal, and it absolutely does not justify what RBL does. And to RBL, the laws, even those laws which apply some level of regulation to commercial email, are seen as irrelevant anyway. They will continue to ignore the laws and threaten providers whose customers send email because (1) these laws do not legitimize the role of RBL as the Internet email police, and (2) to defer to the laws would cause RBL to lose face. Oh, and RBL and its sympathizers don't think it's important to tell you that there is no federal law against junk email, and that most state junk email laws (including the California law) have been struck down by the courts. (See also Targeted Email/Spam Masquerade).

No, the RBL philosophy is one of "take the law into your own hands" (Badges? We ain't go no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges.), and "the end justifies the means". You do not have to look back very far in history to see the sad results of such a philosophy. (Think we're the only ones who believe they go too far? Read this and this.)

And RBL is not content to stop with email. If you have 'offended' by sending junk email, then you may also be punished by having all your other Internet traffic blocked as well. They are perfectly willing to block web traffic, file transfers, and other forms of Internet messages. Theirs is not an approach of surgical precision (although it could be); rather, theirs is the punitive "Sherman's march to the sea" approach, leaving a swath of destructive interference. (Think we're the only ones that are trying to point out that what RBL does is punitive? Check out this web page.)

RBL, and those providers who use RBL, can dress up what they do under any description or name they choose. They can claim to be making the world safe for email. They can state that they are reducing fraud. They can say that they are only doing what the public wants. BUT IT DOESN'T CHANGE THE FACT THAT THEY ARE FILTERING YOUR EMAIL, AND POSSIBLY OTHER INTERNET TRAFFIC!! And what makes it particularly egregious is that most providers who use RBL intentionally DO NOT TELL THEIR CUSTOMERS what they are doing because they know how their customers are likely to react if they knew.

Without either endorsing or condemning bulk or unsolicited email, we don't believe it is our right, or the right of any third party, to restrict, or facilitate the restriction, of the legitimate conduct of a business. That you or I don't like how that business has chosen to promote its product or service is completely irrelevant. It is their right to do so, within the bounds of the law. Perhaps this time it wasn't you or your business that was affected, but the next time it could be. If you don't like what they have done, don't buy their product or service.

And it is also completely irrelevant if it was one 'offending' message or a million messages. Again, within the bounds of the law, it is no more illegal to send lots of messages than just one. The anti-junkmail sentiment may grow as the number of messages increases, but that still does not make it illegal.

You may wish to consider contacting RBL directly. If you are motivated to telephone, you should try 650-779-7001/7055(FAX)/7002/7021 (Redwood City, CA). In a bit of arrogant irony, you may not be able to email them about this very problem because they may block your address; if you have another email address, such as Hotmail or Yahoo, you can try sending an email from that address to "rbl@maps.vix.com". If you are actually able to speak to someone, try to get their name and their role in the organization. Oh, and if you happened to have come to this page from the link page at RBL, be assured that contrary to what that page implies, there are no material errors of fact on this page.

It is not our expectation that you will receive a favorable response; these are people who believe they have been divinely chosen to act as the Internet email police. More likely, they will argue that they are taking no action themselves, that they merely offer a list that providers are free to use or not. This type of response is nothing more than a dodge. It is like denying that you started a fire but you were at the scene handing out matches and cans of gasoline. It allows RBL to avoid legal responsibility while often achieving the result they desire through intimidation and threat in what amounts to a secondary boycott. (Think we're the only ones who believe there are legal issues here? Check out this information from Mr. RBL himself, Paul Vixie.)

Another possible response is that they do this to prevent what is called 'theft of service'. The argument is that resources were consumed (server space, network bandwidth, etc.) by the offending email without permission. First, even if one accepts that argument, that is an issue between one provider and another, and possibly local authorities, but not RBL. But this argument is really just another dodge--an unsolicited email promoting a get-rich-quick scheme might be objectionable, but an unsolicited email from an old friend is acceptable, even though both used resources without permission.

RBL's work is made easier by the complicity of two other organizations.

The first is 'sendmail.com', the commercial provider of the email processing software that is probably the most widely used by online providers, and the organization it officially recognizes to support its open distribution software, 'sendmail.org'. As their web site will tell you, they are intimately linked to RBL; their web site is, in fact, hosted by the Internet Software Consortium, which is listed at the same address as RBL itself, with Paul Vixie as its technical contact. And in the recent versions of 'sendmail', RBL intrusion capability is built in. Coincidence? Maybe. In any case, it means two things. First, it is software with someone else's view of a desired social order built into it. And second, when providers update their software from time to time, if they update 'sendmail' they may be enabling RBL, and thus block some email to their customers, without even realizing that it happened.

The other organization is a company in San Jose, California, by the name of AboveNet (now a division of Metromedia Fiber Network). AboveNet is a point of interconnection for several large network providers, and a shameless apologist for RBL. Their decision to use RBL to block traffic automatically affects the interconnected network providers, who probably are not even aware of what AboveNet is doing. While AboveNet may not be the cause of any particular message being blocked, their "tar everybody with the same brush" philosophy is offensive on its face.

What's worse is that AboveNet is a de facto 'enforcement arm' of the RBL. At least 2 employees of AboveNet have been actively involved on an everyday basis with RBL. In addition to Elaine Linsky, AboveNet actually had (until 4/30/01) an officer of the company, David Rand, involved with RBL. These people are providing support to an organization (RBL) whose decisions can be harmful to the competitors of AboveNet. AboveNet can be called at (800) 475-2733 or (408) 367-6678; the Chairman/CEO is Sherman Tuan. And we can't say that we're unhappy to see their stock tanking, down from around $51 (April 2000) to about 40 cents now (September 2001). And check the number of shares sold by David Rand over the last year or so. Is there something AboveNet should be telling their customers? Oh, and don't fear that Mr. Rand has vanished from the scene--he is the new executive director of the RBL.

One more analogy may be helpful. Suppose you had decided to telephone a friend or relative in another state. And suppose that your phone call did not go through because a telephone company along the way refused to carry your call because they were tired of getting complaints from their own customers about aluminum siding salesmen calling at dinner time. You wouldn't accept that regarding a telephone call, and you shouldn't accept such an answer regarding email.

If you have another way to contact anyone with whom you have had a problem exchanging email, you should request that they complain strongly to their provider (the one whose server rejected your message). Any provider that uses RBL is saying that they have better judgment than their customers as to what email the customer should receive and what email the customer shouldn't receive. And in the final analysis, it doesn't work anyway. Innocent parties are harmed, but the junk email still continues.

And the RBL vigilantes have found other ways to interfere with the legitimate flow of Internet traffic. The founder of the RBL, Paul Vixie, and its original 'evangelist' (can't argue with the accuracy or arrogance of that title), Nick Nicholas, are now affiliated with "Whitehat.com", an opt-in emailing service based in Arizona. Opt-in or not, their affiliation is certainly a ringing endorsement that junk email can't be all bad--AS LONG AS IT'S THEIR FLAVOR OF JUNK EMAIL, AND "WHITEHAT.COM" IS THE ONE GETTING PAID FOR IT!! One really has to wonder how a CONFLICT OF INTEREST can be avoided when the founder of RBL is on the "whitehat.com" board, and its former executive director is a 'citizen advisor'--the decisions they make at RBL can easily be harmful to the competitors of "whitehat.com". This doesn't seem to have even the appearance of objectivity.

And regarding emailing lists and firms, RBL extends its egregious behavior even further, attempting to dictate that merely opting in is not enough--recipients now must 'double opt-in'. RBL blacklisted a reputable emailing firm, 'yesmail.com', because they didn't 'play the game by RBL rules'. 'yesmail' obtained a restraining order in Federal District Court in Chicago in July 2000, then ultimately settled out of court by having 'yesmail' taken off the RBL list while giving RBL some face-saving rhetoric in the press release announcing the settlement.

This is a serious issue. It pits your right to make your own decisions against a small but organized and technically skillful group who believe they have the right to make decisions for you. You are presumed guilty until you prove yourself innocent. Emails are easily filtered or discarded, but preserving your right to make your own decisions in online matters is more difficult.

And do not believe for a minute that these people care about you, or your business. They have no concern for the harm that they do because they themselves have nothing at stake (except their egos), and because they are in pursuit of "a greater good". You and your business are simply casualties of the war. Their own web site has proclaimed that sometimes it is necessary to "...throw out the baby with the bathwater", a less than tacit statement that in their minds 'collateral damage' is okay. (Think we're making this up? Think that RBL cares about you? Look at this page again.) And perhaps you've heard that phrase elsewhere as well. It's the same phrase (acceptable collateral damage) that Timothy McVeigh used to justify the deaths of 18 children when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Ask yourself which is the greater issue--receiving email you may not want, or having someone else decide that for you? The choice should be yours.

Click here for a list of providers who filter their customer's email by using RBL. Some of these providers may themselves be 'innocent victims', as it may be their upstream provider that is actually doing the blocking. And some may knowingly and intentionally use RBL; they may see it as the 'politically correct' thing to do, and usually it is for the provider's convenience at the expense of their customers. Any customer of any of these providers should contact that provider and insist that they immediately stop filtering email.

And what do 'email abuse' policies really mean, anyway?

Click here for a mostly black-on-white printable version of this same page.

P.S.--To the childish RBL sycophants at 'whew.com' : In a battle of wits, you're unarmed.

PPS--To the Paul Vixie alter-ego at 'mpis.net' : You're worthy of the same comment made by William F. Buckley when asked why his opponent would not debate him during his race for the Senate some years ago--"Why does baloney reject the grinder?".