Last spring, while skeptical Netizens watched in horror, backbone Internet service provider AGIS opened its virtual doors and welcomed spammers, the pariahs of the Net.
While many questioned his motivation, if not his sanity, AGIS CEO Phil Lawlor insisted his goals were simple, maybe even altruistic. By allowing spammers to use the backbone network, AGIS could control them, he reasoned; the company could use its leverage as a spamming refuge to force junk emailers to adhere to certain rules, including honoring a user's wish to never get spam.
He also wanted to change the Net's current culture of putting the burden on Internet service providers to filter out spam. Service providers, he reasoned, should be content neutral. The idea was to let anyone use the Net--spammer or not.
Antispammers couldn't have been more critical of the idea. To them, it was more than foolish--it was dangerous. Lawlor, in their eyes, had made a pact with the devil. And if Lawlor thought AGIS could tame spammers, he was sorely mistaken, they said. In time, he would learn that spammers can't be trusted, they warned.
As it turns out, they were right.
Six months later, Lawlor and his team at AGIS are singing a very different tune--one that's more in sync with the rest of the Net community. Spammers are no longer welcome at AGIS.
AGIS officially changed its policies to prohibit spam. While spam fighters are skeptical that AGIS is serious about booting off spammers, the company insists that it is. There still are a few spammers left on the network, but their contracts will not be renewed, said AGIS spokesman Jason Delker.
"We won't sign customers anymore who engage in the practice of UCE [unsolicited commercial email]," he said.
What went wrong?
First, the junk emailers themselves weren't adhering to the rules to which they had agreed, Delker said. And from there everything else began unraveling.
AGIS in May set up a group called the Internet E-Mail Marketing Council (IEMMC). Junk emailers had to join IEMMC and abide by its rules as a condition to be carried on the AGIS network. At the time, as now, spammers were glad to find a home. Most ISPs--or at least, most large ISPs--have strict rules against spamming. AGIS was offering spammers a safe place for what seemed to be a fairly small price: all they had to do was agree to honor a global remove list, label their messages as junk email, and only use services to which they were entitled (they were prohibited from using other ISPs' mail servers).
But the rules were apparently too strict, and junk emailers continually broke them, Delker said.
Spam fighters said the rules were being broken almost from day one, citing reams of junk email with forged headers and relentlessly ignored requests to be removed from spam lists.
"Some of the people organizing it couldn't adhere to their own standards," Delker said. "They were circumventing the filter or the global remove list."
Well-known spam company Cyber Promotions was kicked off AGIS just over a month ago. The company's infamous president, Sanford Wallace, agreed that there were spammers who were not adhering to the rules. But he said AGIS shares at least part of the blame for the problems.
"AGIS wasn't the innocent child in this," Wallace said, adding that AGIS did not put the resources into the IEMMC needed to enforce the rules. "They didn't give us the resources to help us legitimize it. Now since AGIS took a beating they're asking the whole world to love them again."
Ironically, spam fighters and Wallace, while they have plenty of points of contention, may agree on one point: that AGIS was not an innocent victim.
As one antispammer said in an email message and online posting, "I still believe AGIS's motivation was pure greed, as they were hoping to profit from the minor thefts committed on a large scale by their customers." To many antispammers, spam is the equivalent of stealing resources because end users have to pay for the network bandwidth that junk email uses.
Delker said AGIS's problem was compounded by non-AGIS junk emailers that were labeling their mail IEMMC but were not affiliated with the organization.
It may have taken AGIS longer to publicly decide that the junk emailers they were hosting couldn't be trusted, but ultimately, they agreed with the antispammers.
Antispammers say AGIS had no choice: the bottom line is, they were losing customers and business because they were hosting spammers. Delker said they may have lost some ISPs, but they did not lose business on the whole. AGIS did, however, find itself in the uncomfortable position of being the center of an Internet debate on spam.
Antispammers, a cadre of people who dedicate hours each week to fighting junk email--were aggressive in expressing their discontent with AGIS's policies. Most used words--often harsh words--to complain; others resorted to more devious means.
AGIS found itself under constant electronic attack that made it difficult to run its network.
Some antispammers say AGIS has never provided proof that it actually was under attack and they doubt that it really was. At least one antispammer admitted, however, that he perpetrated an attack. And Delker insisted the attacks were not coming from inside, as some have suggested.
Lawlor said the hostility was so intense that he was, at times, physically threatened. And there were the abusive phone calls to AGIS and to employees' homes.
AGIS pulled the plug on Cyber Promotions in September.
By then, AGIS had become the vortex of the Net's political fight against spam, Delker said. In many ways, it still is. Although some have accepted AGIS's stance as a sort of truce, many clearly have not. Even if AGIS has genuinely changed, they say, it still should be punished for having allowed spammers to pollute the Net.
Delker said that even if AGIS had wanted to continue hosting junk emailers, it wouldn't have been worth it.
"Around mid-September the amount of attacks in the form of ping floods and mail bombs became so large it really was not worth it for us to keep them as customers," Delker said. "We felt we had to change the way we were looking at the whole spam issue."
Delker said people mistakenly believed that AGIS was in it for the money. Sure, Lawlor acknowledged at the time, spammers paid their bills like anyone else.
But there was a higher principle, he insisted. If AGIS could control spam, then it could be the hero. If the junk emailers had adhered to the rules, Lawlor would be the guy wearing the white hat, the guy who had made the Net safe from spam, instead of the villain skewered by his opponents.
"The difference between us and some of the other providers was that we were the only ones who took a stance that had nothing to do with business practices," Delker said. "I think [the motivation for accepting spammers] was about the belief in the way the Internet works and the freedom of speech.
"Probably financially it was a bad decision," he added.