Lycos Europe Pushes Limits in Anti-Spam Fight

A new application from Lycos Europe aims to fight back against spammers, but some experts say the company may be enabling illegal activities.

The screen saver software, “Make Love, Not Spam,” is a distributed computing application, which activates when the user’s machine is not being used. When active, it continuously generates traffic on the sites of alleged spammers, slowing them down and making them more difficult to operate.

In effect, Lycos is enabling its users to launch a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, said Anne Mitchell, president of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy and noted anti-spam attorney. “Despite Lycos’ reassurance that the use of the screen saver and its contacting of the targeted Web site is not a DDoS, I remain in doubt,” Mitchell said. “‘In fact, I could make a strong argument in court that it was exactly a DDoS.”

While Lycos considered the legal ramifications before launching the application, the company does not expect any legal trouble, according to Wessel van Rensburg, head of email at Lycos UK.

“If there are any legal issues, we’re prepared to deal with them. It’s a pretty grey area. We’ve been careful to program it in such a way that we won’t bring sites completely down. We’re confident that we’ll have broad public support in this,” he said.

Mitchell argues that the entire purpose, and the user’s reason for using the software, is to “get back at the spammers” by slowing down their machine, she said. And despite Lycos’ insistence that sites will only be slowed, not completely brought down, the intent remains the same, she said.

“There is no legal precedent which says that it’s only a DDoS if the machine is taken entirely offline,” Mitchell said.

The sites to be targeted are selected from secure international black lists, which are used by leading portals and ISPs, and each target site is checked manually to ensure that it is a genuine transgressor, van Rensburg said.

The application has been downloaded by a few thousand users in Germany, where it launched today. It is expected to launch in the UK on Wednesday, and in the remaining 8 countries where Lycos Europe operates by the end of the week, he said.

“This effort, while well intentioned, exacerbates the problems we see in email today,” said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the E-mail Service Provider Coalition. “Creating ‘zombie email’ and ‘Web drones’ is never a good idea. Further, there are very real concerns that such activities may violate existing laws.”

The site was unavailable for parts of the day Tuesday, which a spokesman attributed to internal system testing.

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