Research firm sues AOL and Microsoft over spam accusation

The Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) LLC calls itself a defender of the Internet’s e-mail system from abuse by spammers, but a lawsuit filed Monday says MAPS is run by a few self-appointed zealots who are dictating standards that affect hundreds of millions of people and billions of dollars of commerce.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York by the market research firm Harris Interactive Inc., naming MAPS along with America Online Inc. (AOL), Microsoft Corp., Qwest Communications International Inc. and other ISPs (Internet service providers) as defendants.

The ISPs subscribe to the Realtime Blackhole List (RBL), which is one of several antispam services maintained by the nonprofit MAPS, which has operated for three years as a member-supported organization to prevent e-mail abuse.

Harris Interactive officials say MAPS made an unfair and arbitrary decision about two weeks ago to add their firm to the RBL, prompting the ISPs named in the suit to block the company from corresponding with some 2.7 million people who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive market research.

“It seems like these self-appointed watchdog groups can’t (create lists of spammers) in an objective manner,” said Dan Hucko, a spokesman for Harris Interactive. “We feel it’s very subjective and unevenly applied.”

Harris Interactive’s lawsuit complains that there is no process to let accused companies present their side when they are added to the RBL and there is no impartial third party to review disputes or a formal process to bring complaints about how the rules are applied.

“We had numerous conversations with MAPS saying we were placed on erroneously and they didn’t want to listen. We were left with no recourse but to go to the courts,” Hucko said. “MAPS is obviously looking for publicity.”

A spokeswoman for MAPS, Kelly Thompson, said she hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet and couldn’t respond. The organization, however, planned to post a news release at its Web site Tuesday afternoon.

Harris Interactive does not send unsolicited e-mail to attract new members to participate in its research, Hucko said. Members can participate in research only after registering at the company’s Web site or one of 26 other sites that recruit members. Harris Interactive also does not supply its clients with personally identifying information about the people who participate in its surveys and it does not sell the e-mail lists – it compiles, Hucko said.

People interested in participating are given many opportunities to opt out of receiving research surveys, Hucko said. Once registered, a new member receives a welcome e-mail confirming their interest in participating in online Harris Interactive research. This mail includes another opportunity to opt out and all subsequent messages prominently offer a simple method for removal, Hucko said.

The suit alleges that MAPS based its action on a complaint from a competitor of Harris Interactive. The suit names Incon Research Inc. and its president, Martin Roth, as defendants due to their role in “nominating” Harris Interactive for the RBL. The accusations against the plaintiffs include interference with business and defamation.

A man who answered the phone at Incon referred all calls related to the lawsuit to MAPS.

The suit asks that the court issue an injunction to reverse MAPS’ decision to add Harris Interactive to MAPS and seeks a minimum of US$50 million in damages.

Harris Interactive also accuses AOL in the lawsuit of federal antitrust violations related to its market research firm, which competes directly with Harris Interactive. The suit says AOL blocked Harris Interactive from contacting people who signed up to participate in Harris surveys in an effort to give the AOL market research subsidiary an advantage.

Harris Interactive believes AOL is blocking access to its survey participants because e-mail to people who sign up for Harris Interactive surveys who also have AOL e-mail addresses is returned. AOL justifies its actions based on Harris Interactive’s listing on the RBL, Hucko said.

“There is no basis for Harris Interactive to have named AOL in its lawsuit,” an AOL spokesman said Tuesday afternoon. “Neither AOL or any of its Internet brands use the Realtime Blackhole List.” He added that AOL believes that Harris Interactive’s suit has “no merit.”

The AOL spokesman said that AOL is confident about the antispam filtering technologies it has in use.

Harris Interactive, of Rochester, N.Y., is at MAPS, located in Redwood City, Calif., can be found on the Web at