America’s largest online market research firm has filed a lawsuit against the nation’s biggest internet service provider, the culmination of a bitter dispute between Harris Interactive and America Online over the alleged blocking of email.

Harris, which every quarter uses the internet to survey the opinions and behaviour patterns of over 1.5 million private individuals, insists that it does not send unsolicited email and that all participants register to take part in its surveys.

However, AOL and a number of other ISPs subscribe to the Realtime Blackhole List, an e-mail blocking service maintained by Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS), a non-profit body that tracks email abuse. This mechanism has been used to block Harris from sending email to around 2.7 million members of its online survey panels.

Gordon S Black, chairman and chief executive of Harris Interactive argues that MAPS has no right to "unilaterally decide" on anti-spam standards for the whole online industry: "The whole thing is absurd, but costly absurd," says Black. "We sued in part because we're as offended by the process as we are by the action."

Harris has also lodged an antitrust complaint against AOL, pointing out that online market research company Digital Marketing Systems, a direct competitor to Harris, is wholly owned by AOL.

But America Online maintains it does not use the Realtime Blackhole List as part of its anti-spam defenses, arguing that no basis therefore exists for the naming of AOL in the lawsuit. Says AOL spoke Rich D'Amato: "We are confident our spam-fighting techniques are entirely appropriate." He admitted, however, that "it was possible" AOL was blocking email from Harris, adding that it would do so only if Harris had failed to comply with AOL's anti-spam requirements, rather than those of MAPS.

Harris’s suit asks for an injunction removing the block on its email and seeks unspecified monetary damages. It names more than a dozen companies alongside AOL, including Microsoft’s Hotmail, BellSouth, Juno Online Services and Qwest Communications.

News source: New York Times