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Spamhaus.org Faces Demolition

The U.K.-based Spamhaus Project is in danger of losing its domain name as the result of a lawsuit filed in U.S. court.

Spamhaus maintains blacklists of sites and computers known to be used by spammers to distributed illegal messages, phishing schemes, viruses, worms, and unsolicited commercial email—by their estimates, they help protect the mailboxes of mord than 650 million Internet users (including sites like the White House, the U.S. Army, and the European Parliament—from from 50 billion unwanted email messages a day.

In June of this year, an Illinois company E260Insight, which claims to be a permission-based email marketer, filed suit with the Illinois Circuit Court against Spamhaus, claiming the antispam organization was deliberately interfering with its business and damaging their name. Spamhaus initially filed a response to the complaint (arguing it should be filed at a Federal level), but then refused to participate further in the case. Under the law, the Illinois court had little choice but to issue a default judgement on behalf of the plaintiff, E360Insight, which amounted to an $11.7 million damage reward last month. Spamhaus refused to comply.

Now, U.S District Judge Charles Kocoras is considering signing an order to suspend the spamhaus.org domain name, which could mean Spamhaus’s antispam services would be taken offline.

The loss of the spamhaus.org domain name wouldn’t necessarily shut down the spamhause service: it could move to a new domain name (although that hasn’t really been practical for companies trying to dodge court decisions), or it could operate off static IP addresses, although neither solution is particularly practical and would certainly disrupt Spamhaus services.

More interesting, perhaps, is what might transpire in the event Judge Kocoras orders the domain shut down. The order would have to go before ICANN, the Internet’s governing body, which would likely have to consider complying. In a statement, Spamhaus doubts ICANN would permit its domain to be taken away, if for no other reason than the sheer practical effect of shutting down an enormous antispam operating, and believes agencies within the U.S. government might intervene. But given that ICANN still operates at the pleasure of the U.S. Department of Commerce, if the case comes to loggerjams the Internet might actually see a situation where a U.S. judge can, by virtue of a default judgement issued against an absent overseas plaintiff, order the shut down any Web site on the Internet. And that’s certain to add to international concerns that U.S. control of the Internet’s primary infrastructure is a profoundly negative thing.

Such an outcome would be a worst-case scenario, and is likely a long way off, as Spamhaus is likely to vigorously appeal any decision against it, and ICANN may be willing to defy the U.S. Commerce Department, owing to a recent memorandum of understanding which sets the way for ICANN to step out from U.S. government control.

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