How many blocklists do we need?


There’s been a discussion on the mailop list about the number of different blocklists out there. There are discussions about whether we need so many lists, and how difficult the different lists make it to run a small mail system (80K or so users). This discussion wandered around a little bit, but started me thinking about how we got to a place where there are hundreds of different blocklists, and why we need them.
There is a lot of history of blocklists, and it’s long, complicated and involves many strong and passionate personalities. Some of that history is quite personal to me. Not only do I remember email before spam, I was one of MAPS’ first few employees, albeit not handling listings. I’ve talked with folks creating lists, I’ve argued with folks running lists. For a while I was the voice behind a blocklist’s phone number.
The need, desire and demand for different lists has come up over the years. The answer is pretty simple: there are many different types of abuse. One list cannot effectively address all abusive traffic nor have policies that minimize false positives.
Lists need different policies and different delisting criteria. The SBL lists based on volume of email to addresses that are known to have not opted in to receive mail. The PBL lists IPs where the IP owner (usually an ISP) says that the IPs are not supposed to be sending mail by their policy. URIBL and SURBL list domains, not IPs. Some lists have delisting requirements, some let listees remove themselves.
The policies of listing and delisting are not one size fits all, nor should they be.
There are two widely used lists that have significantly different delisting policies: the SBL and the CBL.
The SBL focuses on IP addresses they believe are under the control of or supporting the services of spammers. They measure this by primarily relying on spamtraps, but they also accept forwarded mail from some trusted individuals. Getting delisted from the SBL means explaining to Spamhaus what steps were taken to stop the spam from coming. It’s a manual process with humans in the loop and can require significant business process changes for listees. (We’ve helped dozens of companies resolve SBL listings over the years, contact us if you need help.)
On the other hand, the CBL is a mostly automated list. It lists ources of mail that aren’t real mail servers sending real mail, but are sending a lot of stuff. As they describe it:

The CBL only lists IPs exhibiting characteristics which are specific to open proxies of various sorts (HTTP, socks, AnalogX, wingate, Bagle call-back proxies etc) and dedicated Spam BOTs (such as Cutwail, Rustock, Lethic, Kelihos etc) which have been abused to send spam, worms/viruses that do their own direct mail transmission, or some types of trojan-horse or “stealth” spamware, dictionary mail harvesters etc.

Because the CBL targets infected machines or open proxies, it can be automated. If a machine is sending mail that meets the criteria for infected, then it’s listed. But, as many of these infections are remediated quickly, listees can automatically remove themselves. I believe there’s also an auto expiration for IPs no longer sending.
Two different lists, two drastically different processes. There is no way a single list could effectively address both types of traffic.
We have different lists in order to address different abuse issues. Not all spam is the same, and a single list would do no one any good.

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By laura

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