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Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night.

This is a geek rant. If you’re here for the usual afrocentric socioeconomic commentary, you can safely skip this one. :-)

I was attempting to email a pair of colleagues earlier today. They’d both sent me emails and I was responding, answering a number of questions. Both emails were returned to me with an error from the “mail delivery subsystem”. Since the rest of my emails were going out without problem and since both colleagues work for the same organization, I decided to operate under the theory that their mailserver was down and to try again later.

So I tried again, and got the identical error. This time I took a closer look at the error message. It was as follows:

Reporting-MTA: dns; newmail-cyber.law.harvard.edu
Arrival-Date: Thu, 1 Sep 2005 10:40:37 -0400 (EDT)

Final-Recipient: rfc822; my@friend.com
Action: failed
Status: 5.0.0
Diagnostic-Code: X-Postfix; host smtp.secureserver.net[] said: 553
Dynamic pool
(in reply to RCPT TO

Okay, not the most communicative message. But there was a link in there, so I opened it in my browser, and got a page alerting me that, “This IP or IP range has been identified as a source of spam or virus email. If this problem has been resolved, please enter the information below to submit an unblock request.”

So, here’s the thing. My mailserver is controlled by Harvard Law School. It lives on an IP address in a neighborhood of Harvard University machines. Whoever was running this service, by blocking all 256 IP addresses within the 140.247.216.* addresspace, just effectively blocked most of Harvard University from sending mail to their clients.

So I requested my IP be unblocked as I hadn’t sent any spam, and I suspected that the vast majority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences hadn’t sent any spam. And then I tried my alternative email account, a GMail account, to send a message to my friends.

Blocked. Same error message. Same invitation to request that all of GMail be unblocked.

My request to be unblocked this time was a little less polite (I believe it began with the phrase, “Dear Idiots,” but that was more polite than “Dear Asshats,” which is what it had read in my first draft…)

In the meantime, I’d received a response to my first unblock request, from GoDaddy, a large domain name registrar and hosting company. It alerted me, in part:

This email is in response to your recent customer service inquiry regarding Unblock IP Request.

After researching the issue(s) at hand, we have determined the following:
140.247.216.* not eligible for auto unblocking.

Due to the large number of virus-infected personal computers on cable/dsl/dialup connections, we no longer accept mail directly from these sources

Which is fair enough. Lots of virii nowadays run their own mailservers on infected Windows PCs. It makes a good deal of sense to block traffic from those machines. Except that my mailserver isn’t a compromised Windows box attached to a DSL line – it’s a Unix box attached to a mess of T3 lines. And I can’t take GoDaddy’s advice to switch to using my ISP’s mailserver because my ISP is Harvard and I’m using their mailserver.

So I responded to this email, suggesting that GoDaddy was making a mistake blocking all of Harvard University and all of Gmail and that, perhaps, they should take a more selective approach to using spam blacklists in the future. And I received a response, telling me that my request had been “escalated to one of our leads for further investigation”.

Ten minutes later, I got an email from “Advanced Product Support”, which was a duplicate of the original mail I’d received, telling me that I should stop using my DSL-connected, virus-ridden computer as a mailserver. Great escalation, guys.

So I did the logical thing. I decided to stop doing business with GoDaddy. Since I can’t send them email, it only seems logical that I don’t want to host my domain names with them. How I’ll manage to migrate my domain names from them since they won’t accept my email, I’m not really sure.

I still hadn’t succeeded in contacting my colleagues. So I got old skool. I faxed them.

So here’s the thing. Spam is bad. Very, very bad. I spend a good chunk of my workday removing spam from wikis and blogs and I hate spam very, very much. But not receiving email from people I want to hear from is much, much worse than spam. And not being able to send email to people because someone, somewhere added an IP similar to mine to a blacklist is really, really bad.

Which is what ultimately worries me about ideas like “The Accountable Internet”, being promoted by friends of mine, including my colleague John Palfrey. The theory of the accountable internet is that certain types of traffic, including email, won’t be accepted by your computer unless the sender has a positive reputation – i.e., you know the person and want to accept their email, or they’re on a whitelist as not being a spammer, or their mailserver behaves in certain ways to prevent spamming.

In theory, all of that is probably right. And my friends are tackling a very tough problem – trying to address spam in a way that’s serious, effective, and keeps governments from doing something even more stupid to prevent spam.

But in practice, vigilante anti-spam freaks end up adding huge chunks of the Internet to blacklists, forcing people to fight through the process of getting certified as “not a spammer”, and therefore entitled to send mail again. I have every confidence that Harvard will figure out that they’re on someone’s blacklist, raise holy hell and let the email flow again. I have much less confidence that friends who run networks in Ghana, Fiji or Mongolia will make it through the same process. Which could result in an internet where you’re only able to mail certain people if your ISP is “approved of”, which means that your system administrator was sufficiently able to cajole – probably in English – a grumpy system administrator halfway around the world.

Then again, maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong crowd. Clearly these Harvard guys are dragging me down. Maybe I’ll go find a more prestigious academic institution to affiliate with so that my @^%%@$!ing email will get delivered.

5 thoughts on “Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night.”

  1. Ethan,

    DNS stuff offers a nice diagnostic on RBLs – go to http://www.dnsstuff.com/tools/ip4r.ch?ip=

    It seems that some lists are blacklisting your subnet because it is believed to be an open relay. This would explain why zombies are using this to relay viruses. If Harvard is using an open relay they are really contributing to the problem.

    Then again there is always the case of overzealous RBL admins – some of these guys have a real attitude and could care list – one strike and you are out and grousing about it makes matters worse. It is just not responsible for ‘regular’ hosting services to use these guys. These guys are vigilantes, don’t care about user needs and typically serve the needs of the paranoid who are idealogues.

    I guess this is a rant for commercial providers that must care about their customers.

    We have had to deal with the RBLs when an ISP of a customer or partner is blocking our mail. I have also put in IP blocks for our system when a subnet somewhere was relentlessly flooding us with garbage.

  2. Stuart – thanks for that link – it’s incredibly helpful. I have no doubt that someone was briefly running an open relay on the IP in question – that’s a floating IP assigned to wifi connections – but blocking the whole subnet cuts the law school off from anyone using this particular blacklist.

    I think you’re right in identifying some of these folks as ideologues. I understand the frustration, but it’s pretty amazing that they’ve chosen to cut off all email from the lawschool because some dork misconfigured sendmail on his/her linux laptop…

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