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CompuServe "death penalty" lifted

Antispam activists lift the Usenet Death Penalty against CompuServe after the online service issues a new acceptable-use policy.

3 min read
Spam fighters today lifted the so-called Usenet Death Penalty (UDP) against CompuServe, after the company released a new acceptable-use policy prohibiting spam in newsgroups.

A loosely knit coalition of Netizens had canceled all postings on Usenet newsgroups from CompuServe members for roughly 24 hours to force the online service to do something about the spam that its members were posting in newsgroups.

Today, Rick Buchanan, one of the leaders of the antispam effort, said that the group is pleased with CompuServe's efforts and lifted the ban--with the understanding that the company's policy would be posted publicly.

"They've been perfect gentlemen," Buchanan said. "They've taken responsibility for what happened. That's all we really wanted."

Ironically, CompuServe had already been working on the problem when the UDP was instituted, and yesterday implemented software to filter newsgroup spam coming from and going to the system, said Donavan Stanley, the "Usenet development lead" for CompuServe.

Members of the coalition said they had tried to get in touch with the right people at CompuServe before calling for the UDP, but were unsuccessful.

Both sides agreed today that there was a communication breakdown.

In fact, Stanley said he agreed with the underlying mission of the group: To rid Usenet of spam.

"The way things have been going, Usenet has been steadily going downhill," he said. "Unfortunately, the spammers have been ruining it for everybody. I would say something has to be done to force the rogue sites in line."

But, he added, CompuServe was not a rogue site. Instead, the message was not getting to the right people inside the company.

"We're investigating why the communication broke down," Stanley said. "We're not certain how many messages were actually sent to us trying to inform us of this problem."

Buchanan said it took instituting the UDP to find the right contacts within the company.

"It was like a wall of bureaucracy that we could not penetrate and we needed a big, blunt object like a UDP to knock it down," he said. Though he acknowledges that CompuServe was working on the policy already, he added, "I think we definitely lit a fire under them. I don't think they would have an [acceptable-use policy] today if we hadn't insisted on a UDP. I'm very optimistic the situation's going to improve."

The protesters had been asking for CompuServe to institute a new policy and for it to give them a contact person in case there was a problem.

CompuServe came through with both. Stanley said the company had been slated to quietly post the policy and then follow it up with a series of news releases, much in the same way that it implemented its anti-email spam measures.

The policy tells CompuServe members that they will face punishment, including termination from the service, for posting chain letters, commercial notices (i.e., spam), and off-topic articles.

CompuServe also will filter incoming and outgoing newsgroup postings for spam and other violations, according to the policy.

Buchanan did not yet have an exact number for how many postings were canceled during the UDP, but he estimates that about 10 percent of the several thousand canceled messages were legitimate, non-advertisements.

"I deeply regret every post I cancel that's not verifiable spam," he said. "Every one of those is painful to me. They weren't intended victims. They got caught in the crossfire. But we didn't start the war. We were defending ourselves."

Buchanan and the others participating in the UDP are not part of a formal organization. Instead, they are a group of Netizens who have taken it upon themselves to try to rid newsgroups of junk email messages that they and others say are destroying Usenet.

Every day they issue "cancel messages," deleting postings that meet the criteria of spam.

When they find that spam is flooding the newsgroups from one particular Internet service provider, they try to inform that provider of the problem. If that ISP does not respond, they will, as a last resort, issue a UDP. They have only issued one other widespread UDP--in August, when they called for a one against UUNet.

Some have criticized the activists for seizing power on the Net. Others see them as heroes.

Buchanan said Usenet is inherently anarchistic and that to save it from buckling, he and others have taken it upon themselves to filter out multiple spam postings.