Four competing Internet powerhouses joined forces yesterday to file sixlawsuits targeting spammers who have swamped the nation's personal computerswith billions of cheesy come-ons for Viagra, cut-rate mortgages and porn.
Officials of Microsoft, America Online, Yahoo and EarthLink said a newfederal anti-spam law that took effect Jan. 1 will give extra clout to theirlegal assault on people they called "some of the nation's most notoriouslarge-scale spammers."
"We're holding spammers directly accountable for the relentlessinfiltration of people's inboxes," said Mike Callahan, senior vice presidentand general counsel of Yahoo. "We're acting on behalf of the millions ofpeople who are saying, `Enough is enough.'"
Anti-spam activists welcomed the lawsuits, but some doubted they wouldsignificantly stem the tide of unwanted e-mail.
"We're happy any time spammers have to pay a price for all the harm theycause," said John C. Mozena, vice president and co-founder of the CoalitionAgainst Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, a national anti-spam group. "But ... Idon'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 somecriminal prosecutions - have shuttered only individual spam operations. Theyhave not reduced the volume of unsolicited commercial messages, which haveincreased to 16.7 billion a day and account for 60 percent to 80 percent ofall 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 wouldtest the value of the Controlling the Assault of Non-solicited Pornography andMarketing Act of 2003 - CAN-SPAM for short.
Internet experts have widely derided CAN-SPAM as a weak statute thatactually legalizes spam, rather than banning it.
"My prediction is that the lawsuit will probably mean that we'll see lesslarge-scale spamming with obviously forged return addresses," Levine declared.But he said spammers are likely to adjust by developing new ways to disguisetheir work.
The high-profile lawsuits, announced by the nation's four largest providersof e-mail service at a news conference in Washington, are an unusual jointmove by companies that are normally fierce competitors. They were aimed atreassuring angry and frustrated customers that their Internet providers aredoing something about unwanted e-mail.
The online giants formed an anti-spam coalition last year, worried the spamflood threatens their business by eroding confidence in the Internet.
A survey by the Pew Research Foundation released in October found that spamwas "beginning to undermine the integrity of E-mail and to degrade the onlineexperience." Some 70 percent of PC users polled said spam has made beingonline "unpleasant and annoying," while 76 percent said they were bothered bythe "offensive or obscene content" of spam messages.
EarthLink Vice President Les Seagraves yesterday called the lawsuits "adecisive step by the leaders in our industry to preserve the integrity of theInternet and restore the value of E-mail that spammers have threatened toundermine."
The federal suits filed Tuesday night in California, Georgia, Virginia andWashington state name a dozen specific individuals and companies asdefendants. But they chiefly identify their targets with generic tags anye-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 QuickSpammers') and John Does 66-75, other spammers."
Another suit was filed by Microsoft against "Super Viagra Group," which itsays has sent hundreds of millions of e-mails to customers of the company'sHotmail 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 ofnearly 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 serversaround the world, most have an American connection, in part because Americancustomers with credit cards are their target, said Levine, the Internetconsultant.
By following the money trail, investigators can usually find out who isbehind a spam assault, he said
Two such Americans are the named defendants in a suit filed by AOL: DavisWolfgang Hawke, a former white supremacist from New England profiled in theonline magazine Salon last year as "the spam Nazi"; and Braden Bournival, a19-year-old championship-level chess player from New Hampshire who operated acompany called Amazing Internet Products.
They allegedly used spammers to sell a penis-enlargement pill, "personallie detectors" and a product called "the banned CD."
The AOL lawsuit says e-mail pushing the products Hawke and Bournival sellhave generated more than 100,000 complaints from AOL customers since Jan. 1,the day the Controlling the Assault of Non-solicited Pornography and MarketingAct of 2003 took effect.
CAN-SPAM does not outlaw unsolicited e-mail but requires each message tohave an accurate return e-mail address, a real postal address in the text anda method for the recipient to remove his name from the list for futuresolicitations. It also outlaws false and deceptive offers and the use ofhijacked computers to send e-mail.
But spam volume has continued to climb since Jan. 1, and many experts havepredicted the law will have little impact. Announcing the suits yesterday, thefour companies disputed that, saying the law "provides strong new enforcementtools," including the possibility for Internet service providers to sue for$100 per illegal e-mail.
Two Maryland Democratic legislators introduced an anti-spam bill Tuesdaythat appears tougher than the federal law and would make it illegal to sendbulk unsolicited e-mail. The bill, proposed by Del. Neil F. Quinter of HowardCounty and Sen. Robert J. Garagiola of Montgomery County, would allow thestate attorney general to impose a $25,000-a-day fine on spammers or send themto prison for up to 10 years.