Who’s Filtering Your E-Mail?

And why?

The other day I sent an e-mail message to one of my editors. Within seconds, the message was bounced back to me with this notice at the top:

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at smtpauth22.prod.mesa1.secureserver.net.
I’m afraid I wasn’t able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
This is a permanent error; I’ve given up. Sorry it didn’t work out.

<[redacted e-mail address]>:
[redacted IP address] does not like recipient.
Remote host said: 554 5.7.1 Service unavailable; Client host [64.202.165.44] blocked using dnsbl.ahbl.org; GoDaddy – Continued hosting of FreeSpeechStore hate website on 72.167.250.55, ignoring abuse
Giving up on [redacted IP address].

My first thought was WTF?

I tried again and got the same result. Then I started researching. I discovered that www.ahbl.org is the domain name for the Abusive Hosts Blocking List (AHBL), an organization that apparently maintains a list of IP address it deems as abusive. The owner or manager of the site had decided that he/she didn’t like GoDaddy.com because it hosts the conservative “hate speech” site FreeSpeechStore. (And no, I won’t link to that drivel.) My editor’s ISP was evidently using AHBL to filter incoming mail.

I e-mailed AHBL the following message using my MobileMe e-mail address (since I assumed my e-mail account hosted at GoDaddy.com would be blocked):

Unfortunately, I host a non-abusive site and my main e-mail (not this one) is at GoDaddy.com. Your site is preventing my e-mail from reaching some destinations because of some link between GoDaddy.com and freespeechstore.com.

Do you really think this is fair to me and others in the same situation?

The response I got was surprising. Someone named Brielle Bruns wrote:

Unfortunately, your provider has stated to us that they will not enforce their Terms Of Service or Acceptable Use Policy. They are turning a blind eye to abuse and harassment, which is something we can no longer ignore.

To give you an idea of why we are taking this issue as seriously as we are, one of Mr Scoville contacted the local police department, fire department, child welfare, schools, etc of one of his victims, and claimed that he and his wife were molesting their children and others from the school.

Put yourself in the victim’s shoes, and then ask yourself weather or not you’d do whatever it took to prevent anyone else from being victimized by Mr Scoville.

I repeat: WTF? My response explained exactly how I felt about the situation:

I really don’t see why I need to be dragged into this.

I agree wholeheartedly that if what you say is true, this Scoville character is an asshole and a menace to society. But let’s look at this objectively on two fronts:

- One of the founding principles of this country is free speech. If Scoville wants to create a website full of hate speech, it is his right to do so. You’re attempting to censor him by acting as a third party filtering service. Seriously: what gives you the right?

- To punish him and (assumedly) GoDaddy.com, you’re punishing ME, an innocent bystander to this whole thing. Your failure to allow my message to be received by my editor directly interferes with my ability to submit work and invoices for that work. You are cutting into my ability to make a living. WTF?

I don’t care WHY you are taking this seriously. It’s none of your business — or mine. Let the police handle it — that’s what our tax dollars pay them to do.

I’ve issued a complaint to my editor and asked him to contact his ISP or system administrator — whoever is using your services. I’ll forward this message to him as well. You are stepping beyond your legal rights in this. I’m hoping my editor complains and your service is no longer utilized by his company or ISP.

The response I got back picked apart my e-mail message paragraph by paragraph, attempting to justify the site’s action against GoDaddy just because it hosts some wacko’s Web site. Honestly I didn’t even bother reading it. It was clear that Bruns was just as wacko as the person he/she was trying to harm — by harming people like me. Clearly, I was wasting my time communicating with this person.

So I wrote to the editor I’d been trying to contact, this time using my MobileMe account. I’d already updated him about what was going on. Now I decided to make a formal request:

I respectfully request that you ask your ISP or system administrator to stop using the services of Abusive Hosts Blocking Service. They are preventing me from communicating with you on my primary e-mail address, dragging us into some sort of war they have with GoDaddy.com, and simply do not care how much they inconvenience innocent bystanders.

The fact that your ISP or System Administrator utilizes a service that would do such a thing is unthinkable to me.

When I didn’t get a response, I followed it up with this:

Seriously…you need to do something about this. Whoever authorized use of this blocking organization is preventing me — and possibly your advertisers! — from contacting you. THIS IS DEFINITELY A PROBLEM ON YOUR END. Tell your ISP or System Administrator to shut that service off.

The woman who runs it is on some kind of holy crusade and she’s been very rude to me in our e-mail exchanges. I’ve lost an hour of my day troubleshooting this issue, only to be frustrated by her holier-than-thou attitude.

The day ended. The editor is back east, so I didn’t really expect immediate action. In the morning, however, I had the result I wanted. My editor wrote:

Thanks for letting me know what you’ve learned. I’ll be discussing it with my boss today and we’ll figure out what the next step will be.

I later was CCed on an e-mail message from my editor’s boss to the company’s ISP:

Below is a dialogue between one of our writers and someone named Brielle Bruns from an outfit called “The Summit Open Source Development Group” which seems to be at the root of our problem receiving some business critical e-mails from Godaddy based addresses.

In addition to blocking e-mails from our writer, I have had one of my attorneys e-mails blocked and missed an important deadline as a result. I have no idea how many e-mails have been blocked from our subscribers or [redacted] customers but I have to believe the number is sizable.

As far as any of my businesses are concerned, please IMMEDIATELY STOP using what ever “service” is being provided Brille Burns’ outfit. What ever dispute she or her group has with this Scottville guy, it nothing to do with us and her organization is negatively impacting our business and customers.

Please take care of this immediately.

I replied with a thank you message to my editor and his boss. The block was soon lifted and I could again begin using my regular e-mail address to communicate with my editor.

One of the subsequent messages flying back and forth between the parties included this comment:

PS: We just found this: from 2.5 years ago ref: “Brian J. Bruns convicted felon and owner of www.ahbl.org Abusive Hosts Blocking List AHBL” http://criminal-brian-j-bruns.blogspot.com/

The link is to a Blogger blog that purports to share documents about this person’s felony conviction and sexual deviations. (I still can’t believe the kind crap out there on the Web.) It looks pretty real, but I’m a skeptic on these things and wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that it was Brin’s nemesis, Scoville, slinging dirt. Seriously: some people need to get a life.

When the hubbub had died down, I e-mailed the ISP representative. I had his e-mail address from the message initially to him that I was CCed on. I told him I was interested in blogging about this and asked a few questions. He replied that he’d have to ask his boss about some of the answers, but he did state the following:

I can tell you, though, in regards #3, we were using the service entirely for spam prevention. We use a number of different services for spam prevention, and had no knowledge of their political agenda. As soon as we found out what was going on with this service, which was, coincidentally, shortly before [redacted] e-mailed us, we stopped using this service. I am very sorry for the problems this caused, and we would never knowingly use a service that had a political agenda like this.

Which begs the questions:

  • What “service” is your ISP using to combat spam?
  • How many important, legitimate e-mail messages have you missed because of a situation like this?
  • What gives organizations the right to classify an IP address as abusive or harmful, regardless of who else might be using it via shared hosting or e-mail?

If you or your ISP is using AHBL, stop now. The company obviously has a political agenda that does not consider the negative aspects of its actions. Why would anyone use a company like this to filter e-mail? Wouldn’t you rather get a little spam than miss out on important communications from friends, family, and business associates? I would!

As for me, I’d already begun moving my Web sites and e-mail addresses away from GoDaddy.com — but for other, service-related reasons. They still have not provided a satisfactory explanation to me about what’s going on with the “hate site.” This just confirms that my switch to a new ISP was long overdue.

12 thoughts on “Who’s Filtering Your E-Mail?

  1. Hello,

    I have run into this same exact problem and pretty much have taken the same exact steps you have to resolving this (however, I have not yet got to contact the ISP to question their use of ahbl.org). It is absolutely unacceptable and unreasonable that this company would ban every website by godaddy for their suspicion and political agenda. I have not yet found a solution to the issue, however switching from godaddy is not an option as we have several hundred clients with them and it is not my choice to decide which company to host them at.

    All in all, great article, it provided me a good amount of information I will need to get this resolved.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for this article! I am having the same problem. I wonder how many people like us are caught in the middle of this mess.
    Lisa

  3. I too am ready to leave godaddy. For weeks I have been calling and researching what might be wrong with my email. Godaddy has given every excuse – yesterday’s was that Outlook was the problem. Have you decided on a new provider?

    @Lisa

  4. How is it legal for an ISP to do this? And what gives them the power to look at my communications? What about our privacy rights? Can you imagine if the phone company arbitrarily decided that they wouldn’t let you call certain numbers? Or what if the Post Office started opening all your mail to determine if they think it’s legitimate? Has anyone ever tried to bring this issue to court?

  5. I’m stuck in this hell right now. We’re on godaddy.com and have a large portion of our company sites posted on their space. We’re getting a dozen or so emails to important clients regarding legal matters blocked because of this dispute. This is absolutely disguisting that so many of us are having to spend hours upon hours of time to diagnose what should have been settled years ago. I can not contact every ISP of these recipients and explain this situation nor am I in a position to move to another host.

    Not sure what the situation is and emails to godaddy.com have been unreturned.

    • Leif: Unfortunately, GoDaddy doesn’t seem to care. This is why I’m moving all my sites and e-mail accunts off GoDaddy.com to another host.

      Your best bet is to contact the people you are trying to reach using another e-mail address and tell them what’s going on. When I did this, my client stopped using the blocking service that was causing the problem. It’s really the blocking service and NOT GoDaddy that’s the source of your woes. Send them a link to this post if you think it would help.

      Good luck to you!

  6. Maria,

    Many thanks for this information. We too have encountered this problem with our ADPHosting/GoDaddy hosted site + email. When I contacted GoDaddy originally, I was told that it was a spam filtering problem with our clients (recipients of our emails) but this AHBL issue was not disclosed.

    I do not know how many important communications have been missed and have been forced to get another email account with a different service.

    I guess that AHBL is winning since we have to move to another host and GoDaddy is loosing but, in reality we are all loosing and this kind of behaviour by AHBL is criminal (or borderline criminal).

    Why hasn’t the government stepped in? I cannot contact all of my current + potential clients and tell them to change their spam filters…

    • Juan,

      You SHOULD contact the people you do business with and let them know about this. My editor raised such hell with his ISP that they immediately discontinued using the service. Send them a link to this post if they need more info. It’s vital that we spread the word so people stop using AHBL.

      Best of luck to you.

What do you think?