As you probably know, I used to be associated with the Mail Abuse Prevention System, the well-known anti-spam blacklist group.

Though I continue to fully support a network owner's right to block email from whomever they please, I no longer have faith in MAPS' goals or mission.

I don't think MAPS will survive much longer, at the very least, due to monetary issues. MAPS had a long standing goal of inviting lawsuits with the intent of setting legal precedents that support the stance that email blocking is an acceptable practice.

Unfortunately, they haven't been very successful in this task. Numerous high-profile tangles with ISPs and companies with better lawyers and deeper pockets have resulted in unsatisfactory, imperfect outcomes.

MAPS vs. Experian

In late 1999 and early 2000, Exactis, now owned by Experian, was an email outsourcing company. Their clients included FT (the London Financial Times) and American Express. Numerous people had claimed to have received unsolicited email advertising from those clients, dating from April 2000, delivered by Exactis email servers.

After the end recipients of the unwanted mail were unable to settle the issue to their satisfaction, those folks decided to nominate various Exactis servers for inclusion into the MAPS RBL.

That nomination was received by MAPS. MAPS negotiated with Exactis, and in May 2000, Exactis had agreed to implement closed loop/verified opt-in, though it is unclear to what degree.

Later that year, people indicated that they continued to receive unsolicited email advertising from Exactis. Further discussions between MAPS and Exactis revealed that Exactis was no longer willing to proceed down a path that required closed-loop/verified opt-in. Their stated reasons for this included resistance from their clients. Exactis indicated that they felt clients would jump ship to other email providers, because most other email providers did not employ similar requirements. They requested a compromise position that included incentivizing their clients to move to a verified opt-in standard. However, again, to what degree is unclear.

It is also unclear what further discussions took place after that point. Whatever exchanges did occur, they did not lead to agreement. MAPS released a press release on 11/15/2000, indicating that they had listed Exactis' servers on the MAPS Realtime Blackhole List. This press release also stated that in response to this action, Exactis filed suit against MAPS.

In the suit, Exactis stated that, "neither Exactis, nor its clients, send unsolicited bulk email, or spam." However, they later state, "it is Exactis' client, and not Exactis, who determine which consumers should receive what information based upon the requests and permission provided by those consumers." Relying on client practices for gathering permission indicates that there are likely to be multiple practices utilized, and it's probably unlikely that anybody in this position could accurately state with authority that none of these processes ever result in the accidental transmission of email to recipients who did not request it (a common definition of spam).

Exactis obtained a Temporary Restraining Order, the result of which was that MAPS was forced to remove Exactis from the RBL.

Jump forward to October, 2001. A settlement is announced, and the lawsuit against MAPS is dropped. Both sides (MAPS, and Exactis now being owned by Experian) release press releases.

Essentially, the settlement amounts to a loss for MAPS. Experian touts that it is not forced to require verified opt-in, and any current or future MAPS RBL listee is likely to reference this settlement if MAPS requests them to utilize only verified opt-in name collection practices.

However, this is not necessarily a win for Experian. Their ability to play the bully and force MAPS to back down is likely to leave a poor taste in the mouth of many folks who dislike spam. Some people will say that it makes Experian spam friendly, and some sites are likely to refuse mail from Experian's networks or servers.

Regardless, the outcome is damaging to MAPS' goals and reputation. The further I investigate this, the more I'm convinced that this was the perfect test case for MAPS. Their inability to follow it through has likely done a grave disservice to the anti-spam community.
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