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Four Big ISPs Sue Hundreds Of Spammers

The suits are the first major industry actions under the anti-spam law that took effect Jan. 1.

America Online, EarthLink, Microsoft, and Yahoo, the four largest Internet service providers in the United States, said Wednesday that they've filed six federal lawsuits in four states against hundreds of spammers.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Washington, Randall Boe, AOL's executive VP and general counsel, said, "Today we are announcing something that is unprecedented, and that is the fruits of our concerted efforts to find spammers, track them down, sue them. And the next step will be to put them out of business."

The four companies entered into an anti-spam alliance in April.

The spammers being sued account for hundreds of millions of spam messages and are among the worst spammers on the Internet, Boe said. The suits filed in California, Virginia, Georgia, and Washington state, he said, are the first industry lawsuits filed since the passage of the federal Can-Spam Act of 2003, which took effect Jan. 1. He expects more lawsuits will follow.

And why have these four rivals chosen to cooperate? "Spam has become the single largest customer problem on the Internet," Boe said.

Taking the podium after Boe, Les Seagraves, EarthLink's VP, chief privacy officer, and assistant general counsel, sounded defiant. "We stand united in purpose, in mission, and in direction against the people that litter our in-boxes with spam," he said. "Spam is in danger of destroying one of the most important communications tools we have in our time. And this alliance is committed to making sure that that does not happen."

Bringing all of the defendants to justice may prove something of a challenge. Microsoft's lawsuit against "Super Viagra Group," for example, accuses John Does 1 through 50 of spamming through domains traced to Argentina, India, Lithuania, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey.

But specific individuals are named in some of the suits. In a phone interview, Yahoo corporate general counsel Matt Robinson said his company is suing three known individuals based in Canada--Eric Head, Matthew Head, and Barry Head--for sending some 300 million messages in January alone. "We want to hold these people accountable," he said.

Paul Judge, chief technology officer at E-mail security vendor CipherTrust Inc., sees the alliance's action as a warning shot to the world. "These ISPs have proved that spammers should take Can-Spam seriously," he says.

Until now, the Can-Spam Act has been seen as largely ineffective. A number of anti-spam companies have reported an increase in the amount of spam since the passage of the law. According to Judge, spam comprised 68% of business E-mail in January. Today, it's 79%. Another anti-spam vendor, Brightmail Inc., saw the percentage of spam rise from 60% in January to 62% in February. E-mail security vendor MessageLabs Inc. observed a roughly similar increase in that time period.

The announcement will serve to bring more messages into compliance with the Can-Spam law, which requires marketers to include an opt-out mechanism and a valid return address, Judge says. Only 1% of spam now conforms to the law, he says.

While he expects the total volume of spam will continue to rise in the near term, Judge notes that the amount of spam that's reaching in-boxes is decreasing because anti-spam tools are improving and response rates are in decline. He recounts a phone call he recently received from a leading spammer looking to reform his ways. This spammer, he says, had been making $2 million to $3 million per month but wants to get out of the business because of increased pressure and diminishing returns.

Says Judge, "Spam is a dying business model."

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