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15 May 2010
Last year, Russ Smith of consumer.net filed a most peculiar suit against Comcast (his home ISP), Microsoft, Cisco, and TrustE, pro se, claiming a long laundry list of malicious behavior and privacy violations. Last week the judge threw out the entire suit, but gave him one more chance to refile and try to correct the flaws. Among Smith's claims are that Comcast and Microsoft's Frontbridge subsidiary have blacklisted him personally. To the surprise of many observers, the judge did not accept Comcast's defense that 47 USC 230 (the CDA) gives them blanket immunity for good faith spam filtering. Smith claimed that Comcast said they'd unblock his mail if he paid them more money, which he interpreted as pay to spam, which if true would mean the blocking was in bad faith. While Comcast may well have said something like that, it didn't mean what Smith claimed. Having exchanged some mail about the suit with Smith last fall, I think I understand what was going on, which was that despite having some sort of certificate called a CISSP, Smith fails to understand the way that e-mail works, and he has imagined a vast conspiracy to explain what was really configuration errors, a poor choice of server hosting, and perhaps malware infecting his mail server.
Smith seems to have have two concrete problems with his mail. One is that Comcast blocks port 25 when he tries to send mail from his home account, and the other is that various places sometimes block mail from his rented server.
It appears he calls Comcast and complains a lot, and it never occurs to him that the first level support people reading scripts aren't very good at picking the right scripts to respond to his harangues. If he's getting bogus responses, it's out of ignorance, not conspiratorial malice. In particular, when he complained about port 25 blocking at Comcast, he says the answers were all along the lines of "you must be sending too much mail and/or spam" rather than the correct answer which is to use port 587, known as SUBMIT, to send mail to his off-network server rather than blocked port 25. In his complaint he even quotes part of a Comcast document mentioning 587 but never makes the leap that this might mean him. He then goes off on a long riff about how he demands the right to correct the alleged files of personal info that Comcast, Frontbridge, and Ironport have on him, which is silly, since port 25 blocking is a routine standard industry policy that applies to customers of ISPs all over the country. Reconfiguring his computers to use SUBMIT would only take a few minutes--I've done it, and use it to send mail from my home DSL through my off-network mail server. But when I asked Smith last fall if he knew about SUBMIT, he didn't.
The comment from Comcast about about paying more for unblocked port 25 was most likely an upgrade to their business class service, which does let one host servers and does permit sending mail using port 25. But this isn't pay to spam, it's servers vs. no servers. They don't let customers of either category send spam, and in his case, since it doesn't appear he wants to run servers at home, it would have no advantage over reconfiguring and using SUBMIT. Whatever Comcast said, Smith appears not to have understood.
Smith's mail server is hosted at a Florida company called Infolink. People who've been in the Internet business for a while will recognize the name as a famous spam haven in years past. I haven't investigated Infolink lately, but it would not be, to put it mildly, my first choice to locate a mail server. Smith told me he had no idea who they were or what their history was when he picked them for server hosting.
Another of his concrete complaints is that the IP address of his server appeared on an obscure Frontbridge blacklist called 88.blacklist.zap. Microsoft is very coy about what gets one onto that list, although it appears that you can write to them and they will promptly delist you. There's some speculation that it's derived from the CBL, a well respected and very accurate list of computers infected with spam sending bots, and I found some other comments saying that Microsoft lists IP ranges that send them a lot of spam. It's not out of the question that someone added large chunks of Infolink space due to spam received in the bad old days and it was still there. Or it's possible that Smith's server had a virus. Whatever it was, it would have been a lot easier to ask to be delisted than to go to court.
In any event, it's hard to see how Smith could have any sort of case unless the facts were vastly different from what they appear to be. Other observers said that the only reason the judge gave Smith another opportunity to resuscitate his case was the traditional latitude given to pro se litigants. The judge admonished Smith to make "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," which his current 404 page complaint is not. Even if Smith manages to restrain himself and refile successfully, a better response from Comcast will likely extinguish this case once and for all.
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