Published Friday, October 13, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

Case against MAPS proceeds

Local anti-spam company under fire

BY TRACY SEIPEL, Mercury News

A Santa Clara County Superior Court Judgr ruled Thursday that a New Hampshire company could pursue its claims against a local anti-spam organization, saying the company's allegation that it was damaged by being listed as a spammer has some merit.

The case, which has raised a host of free speech and e-commerce-related legal issues, involves the conduct of Mail Abuse Prevention System, a widely used Redwood City company set up to help companies screen junk e-mail.

Under attack from firms that have wound up on its so-called ``Blackhole List'' of junk e-mailers, MAPS filed suit this spring seeking a definitive ruling from a California court that its practices did not violate any laws.

The target of the suit was Black Ice, which makes software tool kits and had threatened legal action over being placed on the Blackhole List. Black Ice responded by counter-suing MAPS, accusing it of defamation and unfair business practices. In his ruling Thursday, Judge Socrates Manoukian sided primarily with Black Ice. He ruled the firm can proceed with its case against MAPS and can seek punitive damages.

Black Ice attorneys Steve Levitan and Clark Stone said they were satisfied with the decision. ``Black Ice is pleased with the results and it intends to pursue its claims against MAPS,'' said Levitan. ``Black Ice is a legitimate business, and what MAPS did to us was -- in our view -- arbitrary and wrong. Black Ice was injured and it wants to be made whole.''

Michael Risch, attorney for MAPS, was dismayed.

``We are obviously disappointed that the court didn't see all of the issues our way. At the same time, several parts of the court's ruling significantly narrow the issues in the case as to what exactly it is Black Ice can claim as wrong-doing.''

Lawyers for MAPS have likened their organization to Consumer Reports, saying it simply renders an opinion on whether a particular company is generating unwanted spam and ignoring pleas from computer users to stop sending e-mails. As the company sees it, issuing those opinions is protected free speech.

Internet Service Providers such as Hotmail subscribe to MAPS, and can use it to block e-mail from Web sites on the Blackhole List. MAPS stresses that service providers make the decision whether to block e-mails, and that MAPS is simply in the business of providing information.

Black Ice disagrees, and in court papers depicted MAPS as recklessly disseminating false information. Critics of the Redwood City company maintain it has accumulated too much control over what Internet messages reach their destinations.

Black Ice was not the first company to challenge MAPS in court. Earlier this year, two other companies sued MAPS on the East Coast, including Harris Interactive, a giant e-mail company affiliated with the Harris polling service.

MAPS set up a legal defense fund to fight off challenges to its anti-spam efforts. The company even challenges readers on its Web site to sue MAPS, comparing the debate to the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision. ``It's our hope that MAPS can help bring about a similar landmark case and carry it all the way to the Supreme Court,'' reads the Web site.


Contact Tracy Seipel at tseipel@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5343.