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Backlash for the blacklist

ORBS blacklists ISPs Xtra and Actrix, which in turn slap ORBS with a lawsuit--and the list goes off the air.

NEW YORK--A sly friend sneaked me into the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night. With each intermission, the volume of gossip increased by three decibels on the subject of which shows would close as a result of The Producers' unobstructed romp. I might have been at a coffee break at Microsoft's antitrust appeal or trolling the discussion boards of a dot-com deadpool. I felt utterly at home.

Broadway and Silicon Valley aren't the only places where grandiose ambitions come to dismal conclusions. Take New Zealand, for instance, and the Open Relay Behavioural Modification System, or ORBS, a force to be reckoned with in the spam wars worldwide. It recently had its behavior modified by the New Zealand courts at the behest of ISPs that finally got fed up with ORBS's high-handed approach to spam control.

In a nutshell, ORBS blacklisted ISPs Xtra and Actrix, which in turn slapped ORBS with a lawsuit--alleging libel, among other things, for calling them spammers--and an injunction to stop blacklisting them. ORBS responded by circulating their IP addresses via newsgroups, which the ISPs and their lawyers took as a violation of the injunction.

Days later, the ORBS site went off the air with this note: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, the ORBS website is no longer available."

ORBS's final curtain earned a standing ovation--not just from ISPs and others who believed they were unfairly blacklisted, but from supposed anti-spam allies of the service.

"ORBS is an organization that tried to do something which I think is entirely appropriate, which is identifying and targeting for blocking known spam sources," said Ray Everett-Church, counsel to anti-spam group CAUCE. "But the way they went about it was very arbitrary and in some cases came down to personal disputes between the operator and those targeted. It was so harmful to the anti-spam movement it's good they've been knocked out of the field."

Alan Brown, the man behind ORBS, was uncharacteristically silent after years of making so much noise on the spam front.

"Sorry, I'm unable to talk about any of this stuff," Brown wrote in a brief e-mail interview.

Brown ran ORBS through his small ISP Manawatu Internet Services, where he gained a reputation for running a blacklist of personal vendettas. Skinformants say he recently divvied up the ORBS list into three parts, with one category devoted to those who'd crossed him.

The ISPs are said to have fallen into that last group after Manawatu fell behind in its payments to them.

"Some listings on ORBS are generated through the automatic testing and verification of Internet addresses," the blacklisted telecom company noted in a statement announcing its legal action last month. "However, the ORBS list also contains manually entered listings of organizations that have business disputes (or whose customers have disputes) with Mr. Brown."

After the anti-spam crusader posted their IP addresses to newsgroups and mailing lists, Skinsiders say Telecom NZ retaliated by petitioning the court for an arrest warrant.

"Apparently that got his attention," observed a spam insider. Days later, ORBS was off the Web and Brown was eating crow with abandon, retracting his previous post, acknowledging he'd blacklisted them even though they hadn't committed spam offenses, claiming his Web site had closed for reasons unrelated to the legal wrangling (a claim ridiculed by other list members), and asking recipients not to block the telecom company.

The last we heard from Brown, he was explaining his sudden absence, and the imminent demise of the ISP, to Manawatu subscribers.

"The last 9 years of operation of Manawatu...have been enjoyable and entertaining," Brown wrote. "However the stress levels associated with operating a small ISP have been taking their toll on my health for the last 2-3 years and it really has become time to move on to different fields."

His robot Friday
Speaking of moving on to different fields, Steve Ballmer's secretary might want to consider some alternative long-term career paths, based on statements attributed this week to the Microsoft CEO by Reuters.

"Five years from now, my computer will at least be, maybe, one-tenth as smart as my secretary," Ballmer was quoted as saying in reply to a question about the next revolutionary development in computers.

Not even Sony's Aibo has fast-tracked the family pet to oblivion in so short a time frame.

According to Reuters, Ballmer believes a "natural user interface" is on the horizon that will allow us to talk to our computers the same way we talk to other people.

Microsoft confirmed the statements were accurately reported but refused to produce Ballmer's secretary for a comment or reveal the individual's identity.

Recruiters jumped to the defense of the profession, pointing out that executive assistants qualified to report to CEOs at Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft aren't exactly a dime a dozen. Many command salaries that exceed $90,000 a year in expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco. Not only that, qualified candidates are usually hard to find.

"The big thing is the personality match," says Saul Cohen, a principal at San Francisco-based recruiter Clark Cohen. "A really good one is like a manager of that person's day. But more than that, they need to get along because they basically live with each other."

So does that mean computers in five years will also be about one-tenth as smart as Ballmer?

Business 2.0's essential subscriptions
Careers on the fast track to oblivion aren't news to old hands in the new media business.

Consider a recent pitch by Business 2.0 Editor in Chief James Daly, who recently urged readers in a magazine promotion to renew their subscriptions or "risk missing the issue that could make a difference in your future."

Turns out missed subscriptions--even at the budget rate of 46 cents an issue--were more important to the future of the magazine, which was sold this week to AOL Time Warner for $68 million. Most of the editorial staff will be laid off. To avoid missing the next issue of this column, send me your rumors.