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Feds prime new antispam weapon

Open relay mail servers are the target in a crackdown against junk mail launched by the Federal Trade Commission and a band of U.S. and foreign law enforcement allies.

Federal and state law enforcement agencies pledged to take an aggressive new approach to fighting spam: identifying "open relay" mail servers that serve as conduits for massive quantities of junk e-mail.

At an event in Dallas on Thursday, representatives of the agencies said they--in tandem with officials from Australia, Canada and Japan--had sent letters to operators of over 1,000 e-mail servers around the globe warning that an open relay "creates problems for consumers worldwide, for law enforcement and for your organization."

"Spammers hunt these open relays down and hijack their resources," said Marc Groman, a staff attorney at the Federal Trade Commission, which has created a Web site devoted to open relays. "They avoid filters. They avoid law enforcers. They also damage the reputation of innocent parties. Therefore we want the open relays around the world closed."

Other organizations involved include the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the offices of three U.S. Attorneys and four state attorneys general.

Thursday's announcement is the fourth in a series of Internet crackdowns over the last few years, and follows a three-day FTC spam summit earlier this month. In addition to the open relay initiative, the agencies said they had undertaken 45 legal actions against people illegally using the Internet to send fraudulent spam or to hawk prescription drugs, work-at-home opportunities, and financial aid opportunities of dubious merit.

An open relay is simply a mail server that will forward mail for anyone on the Internet, rather than accept connections only from authenticated users or from people on its local network. An open configuration can permit spammers to bounce vast quantities of e-mail through the server. This possibility typically leads to open relays being put on blacklists that allow participating companies, universities and Internet providers to ignore all e-mail that originates from the blacklisted server. One such blacklist is the Open Relay Database.

Until a few years ago, nearly all Internet mail servers were open relays. That practice offered some benefits, such as making it much easier to send e-mail when traveling or when plugging in a laptop on someone else's network.

Most antispam activists believe that shutting down or blacklisting open relays must be a top priority. Critics like Internet pioneer and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore have argued, however, that the costs of prohibiting open relays outweighs the benefits and could precipitate other restrictions from Internet providers.

Groman, the FTC staff attorney, said the agencies were undertaking an educational campaign--but nothing more--directed at people running open relays. "It's not illegal to run an open relay," he said.

The letter to open relay operators outlined problems with such a configuration. "It may appear to recipients of the spam that the spam is coming from your system; your mail server and Internet service resources may be utilized by unknown third parties; your network connections may become clogged with traffic; your administrative costs may increase; or your Internet Service Provider may shut down your Internet service. Fixing your open relay mail server will help you protect your system from being misused."

"Our message is clear and simple: close your relays," Groman said. "This letter was signed by 14 different agencies from the United States and abroad. We translated this letter into 11 different foreign languages."