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Netcom faces Usenet death penalty

Antispammers are threatening to cancel all email messages sent from customers of ISP Netcom to the Usenet newsgroups.

Foes of spam in Usenet newsgroups are threatening Internet service provider Netcom with an ominous-sounding Usenet Death Penalty (UDP).

Netcom, one of the oldest ISPs, has 500,000 customers. The date for "detonation" is February 23.

On that date, a group of Usenet activists have said they will cancel all messages sent from Netcom customers to the Usenet newsgroups--unless Netcom brings its spam count down before then.

Mike Kallet, senior vice president of products, technology, and business development for Netcom, said today that he thinks he has satisfied the demands of the antispammers.

But as of tonight, the UDP was still on. The idea behind it is to punish Netcom for allegedly allowing its customers to send thousands of duplicate messages to newsgroups, and to force it to curtail the practice. At the same time, by halting all messages from Netcom, spam fighters also halt the junk postings.

Netcom's customers consistently have generated the greatest amount of Usenet spam over the last few months, said Ken Lucke, one of the UDP organizers. "Up until this point, the complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Even during the discussion period [about implementing a UDP], they remained silent. We had no choice but to go for it."

So on February 14, the group issued an ultimatum: Cut down on the spam or face the death penalty.

Kallet said Netcom is cutting the spam, and has been working on solutions for doing so but just hasn't communicated that to the group.

Kallet is confident the UDP will be called off because he said he has explained Netcom's antispamming policies to those organizing the UDP.

"We called them up and told them what we were doing," he said. "We expect them to take the threat away."

While Kallet readily admitted that spam on Netcom, like a lot of ISPs, is a growing problem, he said technicians have been continually working behind the scenes to punish ubiquitous spammers on several fronts: by kicking them off the service or taking them to court; by revising its terms of service to reflect new spamming practices; and by implementing updated technological blocks to spam.

"We're going to be posting on the Usenet groups the actions that we are taking," he said. "We do kick a lot of people off our network when they spam, but we don't typically talk about it."

He said that spammers constantly change the technical means by which they send mass postings, keeping Net companies on their toes.

"In Usenet specifically, there are methods people use to take a message and propagate it to 20,000 newsgroups," Kallet said. "We will prevent mass postings."

In other words, he added, "If someone wants to post to 20,000 newsgroups, they're going to have to do it one at a time."

If that's true, Lucke said the group will be glad to cancel the UDP.

The idea is not to come down on one company, he said, but to decrease spam overall.

"Sometimes we have to shake somebody to wake them up," Lucke said.

While many on the Internet find spam annoying and even irritating, a growing cadre of people find it intolerable and have dedicated themselves to ridding the Net of it.

The last UDP was issued against CompuServe, and UUNet got one before that. Both responded by either altering or reinforcing their antispam policies.