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Friday, 24 January 2014

Somnath Bharti: when a spammer becomes a government minister

More than a decade ago I came across an outfit called TopSites LLC which was running a spam operation which was pestering webmasters to renew their listings in the Topsites directory which was basically an unlicensed rip-off of the Open Directory Project in what was basically a business directory scam.

I documented the saga in a five-part series (plus a couple of follow-ups) and eventually TopSites shut up shop, with the main person behind it (Paul Aunger) cashing out from the business and buying into another firm called Inova Technology instead. There's a long story to that particular business and its I won't cover it here, but if you're really interested a trip to InvestorsHub is kind of interesting.

Part way through the TopSites spamming operation, they picked up a partner in India called Somnath Bharti. India was an ideal place to send spam from because it had no anti-spam laws at the time (and is still very lax in this area), so the act of spamming by itself was not illegal.. although the act of selling paid directory listings when they were actually free is a lot more questionable.

Mr Bharti denied any involvement, but since I had a copy of his business card it was pretty clear that he was lying. After I identified him, Mr Bharti was listed in the Spamhaus ROKSO list which is basically a list of the world's worst spammers. An example of the spam can be found here, linking Topsites to Mr Bharti's Madgen Solutions.

I didn't really pay much attention to Mr Bharti after that, although for a long time my site was the number one result in Google for Somnath Bharti which must have irritated him, and I did learn that he moved from IT to become a lawyer.

So I was rather surprised to find that Mr Bharti is now a government minister at the centre of a growing political storm in India, and now journalists are beginning to check his background, which is leading some of them back to what I wrote a decade ago.

Now, I'm not an expert in Indian law (and detractors of Mr Bharti say that he isn't either) but anti-spam laws in India basically do not exist, and certainly a decade ago I don't think that there was anything under Indian law that Mr Bharti was doing wrong. Even so, he was successfully sued in California [doc] for those same spam emails. Rather more seriously, being involved in a business that sells worthless directory listings is certainly legally questionable, although no case about that aspect was ever brought against Topsites or Mr Bharti.

One thing is certain - Mr Bharti lied about his involvement with TopSites. After I published details of his connection, he sent a somewhat threatening email denying involvement but inadventendly confirming it at the same time:
    Subject: surprising and serious
    From: Somnath [somnath.bharti@gmail.com]

    Hi Conrad,
    I was taken by surprise to find you listing my name, one of my properties address and my picture in an article on a company named "TopSites LLC" on your site. I don't know on what basis you have been talking so emphatic without cross verifying with the person you are talking about. To my utter surprise, you have been having this article on your site accusing me of being related to a company I have heard only through your article. Please have the same removed ASAP and explain to me what made you write all this about a person, not even remotely attached to any such company.
    Please acknowledge of this email and have any and everything related my name, my pic and c-28 address removed. I am available at +91-9891819893, if you have anything to talk about. Also, post on the same page an apology for this grievous mistake on your part.
    Somnath Bharti

In that email, Mr Bharti emphatically denies involvement, but confirms that the photograph and address I published of him are correct.

What Mr Bharti didn't know was that I had a copy of his business card, not only confirming his connection, but listing him as CEO.

If you are interested in researching the topic for youself, a good place to start is Google Groups, especially searches relating Topsites, Bharti and Madgen Solutions (Bharti's IT company). I don't know if Mr Bharti is still denying his involvement in Topsites, but the evidence is damning if you look for it.

By TopSites LLC's own admission, they were turning in $1.8 million a year by 2005. How much of that money made its way to Mr Bharti is a mystery. And quite how Mr Bharti reconciles his questionable past business practices with his membership of an anti-corruption political party is also a mystery.

I don't know if Mr Bharti accepts or denies his role as a spammer for TopSites LLC, but his name is all over several public records and I also have private unpublished data that places him firmly near the centre of the operation. Perhaps he thinks that selling something that should be free is also an ethical way to do business, I don't know. And how does he explain a blatant and rather pathetic lie about involvement? That's something I don't know either. But I would certainly be interested in seeing what he has to say for himself..

Update:  after being exposed in the Times of India, Mr Bharti denies being reponsible.. but I look deeper at his involvment with the spamming operation here.


Marc Overmars said...

Hi Dynamoo. Thanks a lot for bringing this out. I saw a URL that contained http://www.webnewswire.com/node/3571944 more information, on the basis of your blog. If he retained the domains (none of them were dropped), he may have invested his scam money in domains. computer.com (bought for 2.2 million in 2007) has the same registration details as topsites.us. Please comment on the story as well.

Marc Overmars said...

The story has gone viral. I think you will be getting a lot more hits on your blog now. ;)

Conrad Longmore said...

@Marc - I can't see a link between computer.com and topsites.us, although the historical WHOIS service I use is currently down and I can't dig deeper.

Nimesh Bhanushali said...

Super analysis. This guy Bharti needs to be nabbed for his wrong doings for looting people of their hard earned money...

Can you provide more details into this case..


Marc Overmars said...

Conrad, great news! I found the evidence. I will post it to media tonight. :) What's your email? I can send you too.

Conrad Longmore said...

@Marc, details are on the contact page. Still can't see the link myself even with historical WHOIS, but perhaps I am missing a trick :)

Mukeshrai said...

bold step sir

Marc Overmars said...

Details are in your inbox :)

Akash Agarwal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mmkachru said...

Iaw Minister must resign till he clears perception of the people of this Country

mmkachru said...

Iaw Minister must resign till he clears perception of the people of this Country

General Q&A said...

Hi Everyone,
I work for internet company and deal with issues indicated here.
1. Topsites.US was an innovative concept in 2004-05 and it involved displaying the company names in their registry and then they charge you $5/month or Rs300/- per month.
2. This company will then send these work-orders to Indian partner company and then this Indian company will run SEO so that payee company will be shown as "better site" then other sites.
3. Now other sites went ahead and complained this to US Federal dept that our website is better but the paid-company is being shown as better site cos they have paid this to so and so company and now we are loosing customers because search engine like google does not show us.
4. Federal dept setup an inquiry and found this info to be true and they fined and banned this US company and its India company as well.
5. This investigation involved around 50000/- companies from around the world and these all companies were banned on one order.
So at the end, everyone just went ahead and paid the fine and closed the companies. Fine recovered was paid back to other companies in respective listing.
Thats all.
Somnath probably was not even aware of what was going on, except for signing up the papers with US company that yes, we will do SEO work in India based on agreement. Rest all was taken up by his counter part in US.

Please ping me if further info is required in this/