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Dateline: 2 February 2000 Early Edition
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Editorial
I Wonder Why?
Regular readers will be aware that on several occasions I've complained, both directly, and through this column, about XTRA's attitude to dealing with unsolicited commercial email (UCE).

I've also highlighted the fact that on those occasions when I've checked, their mailservers continue to be open to the relaying of UCE by third-parties.

Many readers and users of the Net will also be aware that there are a number of "black lists" set up to try and control the flood of spam that often emanates from UCE-friendly ISPs or those who simply are unwilling or unable to properly configure their mailservers to prevent UCE relaying.

One of these services is the ORBS service operated by Alan Brown of Manawatu Internet Services (MIS). By maintaining a list of open mailservers, Alan has created many friends -- and more than a handful of enemies within the Internet community. The distinction between friend and foe is usually determined by whether they have appeared on the ORBS list.

MIS receives its Internet connectivity through Telecom's XTRA service (can you see the inevitable forming here?) and this week I was alerted to the fact that XTRA, who have featured more than once in ORBS' lists and still run an open mailserver (as of last night when I checked) are threatening to discontinue service to MIS.

In a letter sent by XTRA's lawyers, XTRA allege that MIS has breached not only XTRA's terms of service but also local and overseas laws. The letter goes on to say that unless these breaches are rememedied then XTRA will pull the plug on MIS -- or maybe even sue.

Since there are always two sides to every story, I rang the author of the letter -- only to be told that the writer was not authorised to talk with me. However, he took my number and an hour or so later I received a call from Chris Thompson, XTRA's Marketing Manager.

I spent well over 30 minutes discussing XTRA's position and the contents of the letter to MIS with Mr Thompson and what follows is based on that conversation.

XTRA allege that MIS has been "harrassing" some of its customers by "probing" their computers across the Internet. Mr Thompson repeatedly mentioned the phrases "denial of service" and refereed to programs such as Back Orifice in his assertions that what MIS was doing constituted a breach of XTRA's terms of service.

Mr Brown of MIS says that these "probes" consisted of checks on SMTP (email) servers at and under the XTRA umbrella. "According to the RFC, any SMTP server operating on the Internet is inviting connections from other SMTP servers."

When I asked Mr Thompson to advise me exactly what NZ law MIS was breaching (as alleged in the letter) by performing this "probing", he was unable to tell me (I wonder why?) -- simply stating that he was sure XTRA's lawyers had researched this prior to sending the letter. Now, try as I might, I am unable to find any NZ law that forbids attempts to connect to another site's SMTP server and I believe that even the much-awaited anti-hacker laws have yet to be passed -- someone correct me if I'm wrong please.

I asked Thompson to substantiate his claims that the probes launched from MIS were of a level that could reasonably be considered a denial of service attack or harassment. He refused to offer any evidence to substantiate such claims -- I wonder why?

I then asked Thompson exactly how many complaints XTRA had received regarding the polling activities of MIS. He refused to provide that information.

"Do you know how many complaints have been received?"

"Yes"

"Will you tell me how many complaints have been received?"

"No"

"Why not?"

"Because it is not relevant"

"Can you give me a rough idea?"

"There were a number"

"What was that number?"

"It was more than one"

And so the conversation went -- with Thompson clearly persistantly evading the question, unwilling to quantify the scale of the alleged problem -- I wonder why?

I then asked whether he would be prepared to have one of the complainants contact me so that I could ask them some questions. He refused -- I wonder why?

When I asked whether XTRA were using this "probing" allegation simply as an excuse for to get rid of the ORBS service, Thompson told me "this has nothing to do with ORBS" -- yet the letter received by MIS makes very clear and bold reference to the ORBS site and its activities -- even going so far as alleging that it is defaming XTRA by "advising subscriber ISP's [sic] of IP addresses to which access should be denied."

When I suggested that the actions of ORBS was not defamatory because their reports that XTRA was running open mailservers was very much true, Thompson went to great lengths to explain that XTRA had both internal resources and "consultants" who made sure that the servers were not open to relaying spam.

I then pointed out that just an hour or so before our conversation I had successfully relayed a message through one of XTRA'a mailservers and I had even mentioned that this problem existed in last week's Aardvark -- but it still had not been fixed. Unlike Mr Thompson, I am quite happy to make evidence of my allegations available to any third party that might wish to verify the veracity of my claim.

Thompson says that Telecom operates a complaint-based response to problems of spamming and that if I lodged details of the open server it would be attended to. I suggested that perhaps they subscribe to the ORBs list and they would find that information readily available to them. Thompson said that XTRA do not, and will not, use the information made available through ORBS. Other sources advise me that they do -- clearly Mr Thompson is a little out of touch with what's happening within his own organisation -- or is simply unwilling to acknowledge this fact -- I wonder why?

I'm not going to draw any conclusions for readers but I will present the following points:

  • XTRA is undoubtedly within its rights to withdraw the services it provides to MIS because XTRA wrote the contract and MIS signed it.

  • XTRA have made some very bold claims in respect to the activities of MIS and the effects this is having on some of their customers -- but are totally unwilling (or unable) to present any evidence to substantiate those allegations.

  • XTRA continues to operate mailservers that allow spammers to relay spam in contravention of the guidelines accepted by all good Net citizens.

  • ORBS, as an organisation which provides lists of such open mailservers to its subscribers, is likely to be a major pain in the arse to XTRA, whose customers will, on occasion, find their email bounced from ISPs that subscribe to the ORBS list.

  • Mr Thompson appears to be rather disingenuous when he suggests that, despite what is said in the letter sent to MIS, the operation of the ORBS service has no bearing on the threat to withdraw service.
So -- I ask you to draw your own conclusions as to whether XTRA's allegations that MIS is harrassing its customers or launching denial of service attacks have any veracity and as to the real motives behind their threats.

Is this a case of do as we say not as we do on Telecom/XTRA's part?

I also wonder how XTRA would handle the possible fall-out that would inevitably result from any attempt to scuttle the ORBS service by pulling connectivity? It is highly likely that the response from those who subscribe to the ORBS service would be swift and severe -- much to the disadvantage of XTRA's customers. It will be interesting to see whether XTRA truly have the best interests of their customers in mind.

As a footnote - I asked Mr Thompson whether -- as a responsible ISP opposed to spam, he would be taking action against a company whose website was hosted by XTRA and who had, last week, spammed tens of thousands of New Zealanders to promote that site. I refer of course to the Telecom site promoted by way of a pager spam.

I think you can guess the answer to that one.

As always, your comments are gladly received.

 


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