Internet giants sue over spam

Four competing Internet powerhouses joined forces yesterday to file six lawsuits targeting spammers who have swamped the nation's personal computers with billions of cheesy come-ons for Viagra, cut-rate mortgages and porn.

Officials of Microsoft, America Online, Yahoo and EarthLink said a new federal anti-spam law that took effect Jan. 1 will give extra clout to their legal assault on people they called "some of the nation's most notorious large-scale spammers."

"We're holding spammers directly accountable for the relentless infiltration of people's inboxes," said Mike Callahan, senior vice president and general counsel of Yahoo. "We're acting on behalf of the millions of people who are saying, `Enough is enough.'"

Anti-spam activists welcomed the lawsuits, but some doubted they would significantly stem the tide of unwanted e-mail.

"We're happy any time spammers have to pay a price for all the harm they cause," said John C. Mozena, vice president and co-founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, a national anti-spam group. "But ... I don't think it will make much of a difference."

Mozena, a Detroit public relations consultant, noted that previous lawsuits - along with enforcement actions by the Federal Trade Commission and some criminal prosecutions - have shuttered only individual spam operations. They have not reduced the volume of unsolicited commercial messages, which have increased to 16.7 billion a day and account for 60 percent to 80 percent of all e-mail in the United States.

"They haven't created enough fear in the spammers' black little hearts," Mozena said.

John R. Levine, an author and Internet consultant, said the lawsuits would test the value of the Controlling the Assault of Non-solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 - CAN-SPAM for short.

Internet experts have widely derided CAN-SPAM as a weak statute that actually legalizes spam, rather than banning it.

"My prediction is that the lawsuit will probably mean that we'll see less large-scale spamming with obviously forged return addresses," Levine declared. But he said spammers are likely to adjust by developing new ways to disguise their work.

The high-profile lawsuits, announced by the nation's four largest providers of e-mail service at a news conference in Washington, are an unusual joint move by companies that are normally fierce competitors. They were aimed at reassuring angry and frustrated customers that their Internet providers are doing something about unwanted e-mail.

The online giants formed an anti-spam coalition last year, worried the spam flood threatens their business by eroding confidence in the Internet.

A survey by the Pew Research Foundation released in October found that spam was "beginning to undermine the integrity of E-mail and to degrade the online experience." Some 70 percent of PC users polled said spam has made being online "unpleasant and annoying," while 76 percent said they were bothered by the "offensive or obscene content" of spam messages.

EarthLink Vice President Les Seagraves yesterday called the lawsuits "a decisive step by the leaders in our industry to preserve the integrity of the Internet and restore the value of E-mail that spammers have threatened to undermine."

The federal suits filed Tuesday night in California, Georgia, Virginia and Washington state name a dozen specific individuals and companies as defendants. But they chiefly identify their targets with generic tags any e-mail user will recognize.

One suit, for instance, is headed "EarthLink v. John Does 1-25 (The 'Prescription Drug Spammers'); John Does 26-35 (The 'Mortgage Lead Spammers'); John Does 36-45 (The 'Cable Descrambler Spammers'); John Does 46-55 (The 'University Diploma Spammers'); and John Does 56-65 (The 'Get Rich Quick Spammers') and John Does 66-75, other spammers."

Another suit was filed by Microsoft against "Super Viagra Group," which it says has sent hundreds of millions of e-mails to customers of the company's Hotmail service, in hopes of selling either the sexual dysfunction drug or a "weight loss patch."

But rather than a corporation with a fixed address, the group consists of nearly 40 Web domains "registered to individuals in Argentina, Turkey, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Lithuania and India," the suit says.

Although major spam operations usually involve people and computer servers around the world, most have an American connection, in part because American customers with credit cards are their target, said Levine, the Internet consultant.

By following the money trail, investigators can usually find out who is behind a spam assault, he said

Two such Americans are the named defendants in a suit filed by AOL: Davis Wolfgang Hawke, a former white supremacist from New England profiled in the online magazine Salon last year as "the spam Nazi"; and Braden Bournival, a 19-year-old championship-level chess player from New Hampshire who operated a company called Amazing Internet Products.

They allegedly used spammers to sell a penis-enlargement pill, "personal lie detectors" and a product called "the banned CD."

The AOL lawsuit says e-mail pushing the products Hawke and Bournival sell have generated more than 100,000 complaints from AOL customers since Jan. 1, the day the Controlling the Assault of Non-solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 took effect.

CAN-SPAM does not outlaw unsolicited e-mail but requires each message to have an accurate return e-mail address, a real postal address in the text and a method for the recipient to remove his name from the list for future solicitations. It also outlaws false and deceptive offers and the use of hijacked computers to send e-mail.

But spam volume has continued to climb since Jan. 1, and many experts have predicted the law will have little impact. Announcing the suits yesterday, the four companies disputed that, saying the law "provides strong new enforcement tools," including the possibility for Internet service providers to sue for $100 per illegal e-mail.

Two Maryland Democratic legislators introduced an anti-spam bill Tuesday that appears tougher than the federal law and would make it illegal to send bulk unsolicited e-mail. The bill, proposed by Del. Neil F. Quinter of Howard County and Sen. Robert J. Garagiola of Montgomery County, would allow the state attorney general to impose a $25,000-a-day fine on spammers or send them to prison for up to 10 years.