According to this article on CNet News, the Federal Trade Commission has just shut down an ISP called Pricewert, which had sought to act as a one-stop shopping center for spammers, child porn, botnet operators, and virus and malware distributors.
Pricewert operated as a Web host under a bunch of different names–3FN.net, Triple Fiber, APS Communications, and a bunch of others.
I first became aware of 3FN back in February of 2008, when I started seeing spam for all kinds of porn sites hosted on their IP space. The spam I saw generally involved URLs hosted on 3FN that redirected to the affiliate sites of large pay-for-access porn sites–a common spam tactic I’ve seen before, especially from big-name offenders like Streamate.com.
Pricewert/3FN’s business extended well beyond spam, though, and into hosting for botnet command and control servers, virus droppers, malware distribution, and even kiddie porn. In other words, about business as usual for an ISP in a place like the Ukraine or Latvia, but somewhat surprising for an ISP in the US. (Somewhat surprising, at least, until you consider that the founder of Pricewert/3FN was from the Ukraine, where the business culture is such that hosting malware, child porn, and botnet control servers is part of any ISP’s normal revenue stream.)
And here’s the part where I get all Ranty McRanterson.
What’s really, really, really disappointing to me is how poor the US ISPs and backbone providers are at policing themselves, and how even egregiously illegal activity is tolerated by the vast majority of Internet service providers.
3FN’s upstream providers knew that 3FN was a rogue ISP hosting criminals involved in spam, viruses, and malware. I know for a fact that they knew this, because I told them myself, with detailed evidence. In February of 2008. And in March of 2008 (four times). And in June of 2008. And in July of 2008. And in…well, you get the idea.
There is, in the world of ISPs and Internet connectivity, a tacit understanding that any sort of illegal activity, including identity theft, malware, fraud, and computer virus distribution, will be tolerated so long as it doesn’t create too big an uproar and so long as ISPs occasionally move the offenders around from one IP address to another. Even child pornography is not going to create a problem so long as the hosting ISP removes or moves the child porn if they receive complaints.
ISP abuse employees do not generate revenue for an Internet company. In fact, they cost a company revenue. For that reason, ISPs will often hobble their own abuse teams (I sent seven complaints to one ISP about a hacked server on their network over a period of two months, only to be told that the abuse people were not permitted to take down the server until eight weeks after they had notified the owner to fix the problem–which is about like calling the fire department because your neighbor’s house is on fire and the flames are spreading to your house, only to be told that the fire department would mail a notice to your neighbors, and would send the trucks out in eight weeks if the neighbors hadn’t taken care of the problem themselves by then).
ISPs make money by selling hosting and bandwidth to people. Every site they take down is lost revenue; every downstream service provider they cut off is a lot of lost revenue. They’re not going to lose that revenue unless they’re forced to.
Case in point: The rogue hosting provider McColo, which was notorious for hosting child porn, computer viruses (they were a preferred host for the Russian Zlob gang and for the Asprox virus gang), and credit card identity theft rings (Fraudcrew hosted sites on McColo), yet remained merrily in business, with no problems from their upstream providers, for four years in spite of the fact that it was widely known and publicized that McColo catered exclusively to criminal clientele.
And, sadly, that’s the norm, not the exception. Upstream and backbone providers will cheerfully provide connectivity to known-rogue ISPs even though the rogue ISPs violate not only the law but also the upstream providers’ Terms of Service. Global Crossing, a mainstream, respectable business, knew that McColo was hosting computer viruses and child porn; they simply didn’t care. The money of organized crime spends just as well as the money of honest businesses, and often there’s more of it.
In the ISP world, often government intervention is the only way to shut down these operators. History has proven, conclusively, beyond all shadow of doubt, that ISPs and connectivity providers absolutely, positively can not be counted on to police themselves; left to their own devices, they will permit just about anything to happen on their networks. The ongoing corrupt business practices of US ISP Calpop, for example, is ample proof of that.
It pisses me off to no end to see an entire industry that has, for all intents and purposes, quietly agreed to permit organized crime, identity theft, and child pornography on their networks as long as there’s not too much of a fuss about it, and to take action only against the one or two most extreme offenders after many years of operation. While I do not normally see government intervention as a good way to solve business problems, in this case I do not believe the ISPs will ever police themselves effectively, or even want to; there’s too much money in allowing this sort of network abuse. Given how widespread the problem is, I do not think there is any solution other than tighter regulation of criminal activity on the backs of ISPs’ networks.