Thursday, March 11, 2004

Internet biggies united on 'spam'

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Leading Internet companies, in an unusual joint effort among corporate rivals, announced six lawsuits Wednesday against hundreds of people accused of sending millions of unwanted e-mails in violation of the new federal law against "spam."

The legal actions by Microsoft Corp., America Online Inc., Earthlink Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., are the first major industry actions under the "can spam" legislation that went into effect Jan. 1. The suits were filed in federal courts in California, Georgia, Virginia and Washington state.

Dozens of those named were identified only as "John Doe" defendants accused of e-mailing unwanted pitches for prescription drugs, herbal potions and weight loss plans. Lawyers expressed confidence they can work through the courts, using subpoenas and other investigative tools, to identify and find them.

"We've been doing this a long time, and we know what we're doing. We're only a couple subpoenas away from standing at someone's door and handing them a summons," said Les Seagraves, the assistant general counsel at Earthlink, which named 75 "John Doe" defendants in its lawsuits.

The recording industry has been remarkably successful in identifying Internet users in copyright infringement lawsuits, in most cases tracing a subscriber's unique Internet address.

But spammers are famously skillful at covering their tracks, often routing unwanted e-mails through hacked or unprotected computers overseas and working under aliases and shell companies, complicating efforts to trace and identify them.

"It is a significant challenge," acknowledged H. Robert Wientzen, chief executive at the Direct Marketing Association, who said he supports the latest lawsuits. He said companies are increasingly successful tracing spammers. "We're making some progress with techniques and tools that are starting to pay some dividends," Wientzen said.

The four companies said the defendants include some of the nation's most notorious large-scale spammers. They said they shared information, resources and investigative information to identify some of them.

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Internet biggies united on 'spam'