August 6, 1997 2:00 PM PDT

Death penalty lifted against UUNet

Usenet activists are lifting a "death penalty" against backbone Internet provider UUNet (UUNT), saying that spam from the ISP's customers to newsgroups has dropped so dramatically that the action is no longer necessary.

The so-called Usenet death penalty, or UDP, is slated to be lifted at 2 p.m. PT. But there is disagreement among some in the group of Usenet users on whether the UDP should be called off.

The group--a self-described loose coalition of news administrators and concerned users--was cancelling out Usenet messages sent from UUNet since August 1. This was done in response to an alleged tide of junk email the group said was being sent by UUNet customers.

Yesterday, the ISP announced that it was immediately implementing several measures to stop spam and junk newsgroup messages coming from and going to its customers.

Ken Lucke, an active Usenet user and one of the people who called for the death penalty, said he couldn't say why newsgroup spam had decreased so dramatically, but he was glad that it had happened.

According to statistics gathered by people in the coalition, postings from UUNet were down from August 1 and before then through today.

On July 25, 239,815 Usenet messages were sent from accounts on "alterdial.uu.net." On August 1, that number had already dropped to 69,752, rising to 82,552 the next day. Then on August 3, the messages fell to 941. On the following days, they were at 2,751 and then 2,848. As of about 12 p.m. PT today, they had hit a new low of 94.

"It's obvious something has changed," Lucke said.

The UDP started Friday afternoon after several people, who primarily communicate with each other on the newsgroup "news.admin.net-abuse.usenet," were so frustrated by spam--massive postings of advertisements--coming from UUNet that they called for action.

They were criticized by some for cancelling all messages, even those that came from UUNet customers who simply wanted to post messages. Lucke called that "collateral damage," adding that such a thing was bound to happen.

But the action was needed to gain attention to the plight, according to Dennis McClain-Furmanski, a student and designated spokesman for the coalition of people participating in the Usenet death penalty.

For months, the group had been trying to get UUNet to curb people flooding newsgroups with junk messages to no avail. Some said the final straw came after someone claiming to be a UUNet employee posted a note to newsgroups about the abuse on July 21.

The message, which NEWS.COM had quoted yesterday as authentic, actually is a forged posting, according to Alan Taffel, a spokesman for UUNet. Apparently, at least some people believed it was real. The post stated that UUNet "does not have the resources" to deal with spam and that "other, more important matters take priority."

McClain-Furmanski not only said the death penalty was necessary as a last-ditch effort, but also that it might have come too late. He said that newsgroups are so overwhelmed by spam that some ISPs are having to turn off their servers because their storage disks are filling up too fast. Users report that bits and pieces of their messages are not getting through or are being corrupted because systems can't handle the massive influx of messages.

"It may be too late," McClain-Furmanski added. "It may be that the spam problem is so bad and accelerating at such a pace that no one stops it until the Net starts to break up. It's the point of breaking; it's already breaking, but it won't break suddenly. It will break slowly. We're trying to stop it."

McClain-Furmanski and others said they targeted UUNet in particular because the provider has been unresponsive to complaints about spam and because the ISP is allegedly responsible for the majority of spam on newsgroups.

UUNet's Taffel denied charges that it has been unresponsive. In fact, he said the company has "a zero-tolerance policy towards spamming. We receive hundreds of complaints a week about spammers and we investigate them, quite successfully, I might add."

But, he said, the overwhelming majority of spammers originate from dial-up accounts on UUNet's downstream providers. Over the past few months, Taffel said the company identified 592 spammers. "Only two of those were direct UUNet customers."

He added that the ISP appears to be a heavy spammer because it has so many customers, including heavies such as GTE, EarthLink, and Microsoft Network.

"UUNet only has more because we have more customers," according to Taffel. In addition, programs are making spamming all too easy. Anyone with a computer and a few bucks for a program can become a spammer.

But those participating in the UDP maintain that they were only focusing on messages coming from direct UUNet customers.

While stressing the company's strict policies against spammers, Taffel acknowledged that it was adding three new ones. He insisted that UUNet's actions had nothing to do with the so-called death penalty and the resulting publicity in several online services and newspapers.

The new measures include "new technology that will allow us in almost every case to identify the source of spam very easily" and filters for news posts whose authors can't be authenticated. It will also discontinue its policy to relay third-party messages that aren't destined to UUNet customers through its servers.

"These are three pretty dramatic new steps that we are taking against spamming," he said. "It will definitely cut it down significantly."

Moreover, UUNet is "taking legal action against this group. We are turning the matter over to law enforcement authorities."

Lucke said that several attorneys have volunteered to represent members of the coalition if UUNet actually carried through with his threat. But he added that he thought the group did nothing illegal.

"Somebody's going to take a stand. Even President Clinton said the Net needs to be self-policing. There wasn't any vigilantism. There was self-policing."

 

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