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CompuServe given "death penalty"

An ad hoc group of Netizens issues a "Usenet Death Penalty" to the online service because it says the service does not address newsgroup spam.

Spam fighters today declared war against CompuServe (CSRV) and imposed a so-called Usenet Death Penalty on the service for allowing its members to send spam to newsgroups.

In enforcing a Usenet Death Penalty, or UDP, a loosely knit coalition of Netizens takes it upon themselves to cancel all messages sent from an offending party. In this case, the action would block messages from CompuServe members to Internet newsgroups.

The idea is to send a clear message to the online service: Curb spam being sent by its members to Internet newsgroups. (Usenet spam is not the same as email spam, although the two share many common characteristics. While many online services, including CompuServe, directly address email spam, not all address spam to newsgroups.)

Rick Buchanan, one of the leaders of the antispam effort, said the activists imposing the penalty have tried many times to reach CompuServe in hopes of persuading the company to punish the service's members who flood newsgroups with advertising. "They've been absolutely unresponsive," he said.

But this afternoon, CompuServe employees said the company takes the UDP "very seriously."

In fact, Donavan Stanley, who is the "Usenet development lead" for CompuServe, said in an email interview that CompuServe has been drawing up a new acceptable-use policy for weeks that would prohibit spam and that the policy has been undergoing review. The company is also implementing software that would cut down on spam.

CompuServe spokeswoman Gail Whitcomb said the policy should be posted on CompuServe in the next day or two.

Stanley also said that software spam controls had been scheduled for release today, before the UDP was imposed. "As of this morning, the antispam measures are now active on our outgoing feeds," he said.

Whitcomb added that CompuServe has been talking to Usenet administrators about corrective policies.

Once the policy is implemented, CompuServe will then be able to kick the offending spammers off the service, she said.

Protesters have said that they will be happy to lift the penalty once they see that CompuServe takes action against spammers. Buchanan wrote in a Usenet posting today that he had only been able to reach one CompuServe representative and "was informed that they are 'examining measures' and that 'there should be more information coming in the next 10-14 days.'"

He said CompuServe needs to address the problem more directly. "We can't wait for them to get a clue," he said.

The goal of the group, he said, is not just to punish CompuServe, but also to publicize the belief that spamming in any form is not tolerable.

"What we hope is that they will write a solid acceptable-use policy that sets forward what's allowable," Buchanan said. "We want to help them. We don't consider the ISPs to be the bad guys. But if there's no channel to talk to them, there's nothing else we can do but the UDP."

In August, the group targeted service provider UUNet. It lifted the penalty when UUNet instituted new policies curbing spam. But it is considering instituting another penalty against the ISP because Usenet spam from UUNet has increased, Buchanan said.

When the activists called for the death penalty against UUNet, they said the service generated the greatest amount of Usenet spam. Though CompuServe does not generate the most Usenet spam, it consistently ranks in the top five, Buchanan said, and he is worried that it will become increasingly popular as spammers see CompuServe as a safe haven.

The people issuing the death penalty are not part of an organization of any kind. Instead, they are about a dozen activists who on a daily basis try to stop spam from reaching the newsgroups.

In their fight against newsgroup spam--defined as identical messages posted to multiple newsgroups--the activists issue "cancel messages" in an effort to save Usenet from being flooded by advertisements, the group said. The cancel messages delete the contents of the message being targeted. In order for the cancel messages to work, newsgroup administrators have to be set up to acknowledge them.

Although anyone technically can issue cancel messages, users run the risk of being tossed from their ISPs if they do so irresponsibly. There are generally accepted guidelines for the kinds of messages that can be canceled and the reasons why they are canceled. Spam is only one reason to cancel a message. Other reasons include violating rules such as posting pictures to newsgroups that are designated as text only.

The Netizens who called for the CompuServe penalty say they are cautious in their judgment of service providers. They communicate through email and newsgroups and together make decisions on a loose consensus.

One of the activists, Howard Knight, said he started spending his spare time issuing cancel messages because "a year and a half ago I witnessed some of my favorite newsgroups literally get destroyed by advertisers and spammers."

Knight said he personally had tried to contact CompuServe for months about the problem, but to no avail.

As with UUNet, however, Knight said he will be more than happy to stop canceling CompuServe's members' messages. "We just want CompuServe to get rid of the spammers and come up with rules against them," he said.