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NSI threatens to sue Blackhole List operator

Network Solutions says it may sue the influential antispam group if it provides a filter that could be used by hundreds of networks worldwide to block the dominant registrar's email.

Network Solutions is threatening to sue an influential antispam group if it provides a filter that could be used by hundreds of networks worldwide to block the dominant registrar's email.

Mail Abuse Prevention Systems, a Redwood City, California, group founded by Internet pioneer Paul Vixie, said in an Internet posting that it is considering adding NSI to its Realtime Blackhole List following "repeated attempts to get them to stop sending unsolicited bulk commercial email to all domain holders." The filter, which lists Internet service providers and companies that permit spam to be sent on their systems, would then be made available to network administrators to use in blocking email from NSI and other offending organizations.

The filter is used voluntarily by at least 180 licensed subscribers, Mail Abuse Prevention Systems, or MAPS, says on its Web site. The service has been instrumental in getting Microsoft Network, America Online, Netcom, and others to modify their email policies when those companies temporarily were blacklisted.

NSI, however, is not taking the threat lying down. In a letter sent Friday, Jonathan Emery, NSI's general counsel, warned that MAPS faced serious legal action if it prevented NSI email from reaching its customers.

"Network Solutions will not hesitate to take all actions necessary to protect its rights and ensure that its channels of communications to it own customers remain open," Emery wrote. "You should be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions should a company such as Amazon.com lose its domain name, and thus its e-commerce business, as a result of having its notices and invoices intercepted and destroyed."

NSI, which until recently was the sole registrar of domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org," periodically sends its customers marketing materials in addition to regular invoices and service announcements. Under an exclusive arrangement with the federal government, NSI registered more than 5 million domain names before a shared registration system was established. The arrangement gave NSI a wealth of information that the Herndon, Virginia,company says it has proprietary rights to.

But not all NSI customers appreciate receiving the marketing material. One of them, the president of a company called Hypertouch, complained about the NSI email to MAPS, Emery wrote.

Emery added that far from being spam, NSI's emails were "vital catalysts to free and open commerce," and that customers have the ability to get off the marketing list. Representatives from MAPS were not immediately available for comment.

Despite all the bluster, however, at least one Internet lawyer said NSI would face an uphill battle suing MAPS over the filter, which network administrators actively have to seek out and install on their systems.

"Given the purely voluntary nature of the Realtime Blackhole List, it's difficult to see any legal theory under which NSI could state a claim," said Dave Kramer, an attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati who has handled several high-profile spam cases.

MAPS has had scrapes with other powerful companies over its list, including Microsoft and Netcom, but so far those companies have been able to resolve their differences out of court, usually after they modified their systems to prevent them from being used by spammers. For example, free email and Web hosting provider GeoCities last year started requiring its users to enter a password to use email so that outsiders could not use the service to send spam.