RealTime IT News

AOL Loses Round in Spam Fight

A federal judge has dismissed a "spam" lawsuit filed by America Online , according to lawyers defending a group of Florida-based computer technicians.

The case, dismissed last week by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, claimed the defendants had conspired with others to send bulk e-mails through AOL's Virginia computer system. A statement issued by on Tuesday by the Arlington, Va. law firm of Albo & Oblon, the defendants' attorneys, said the technicians maintained e-mail systems and computer networks for customers and are not "facilitators of bulk e-mails, or spam."

The Court ruled that AOL had failed to show that Virginia had jurisdiction over the Florida defendants simply because AOL's business is located in Virginia, and the alleged bulk e-mails had gone through that state.

In his ruling, Chief Judge Claude Hilton said that asserting jurisdiction over the defendants would violate their due process rights, because the defendants did not actually direct electronic activity into Virginia and did not show an intent to specifically engage in business in Virginia. The Court also said that merely enabling someone to transmit material over the Internet is insufficient to permit such jurisdiction.

A spokesperson for AOL said the Court's decision was based "on a mere technicality."

"The legal issue decided by the Court was how much detail needs to be included in a Complaint in order to get the 'legal ball rolling'" AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham told internetnews.com. "AOL intends to take all steps necessary to hold these defendants responsible for their actions, and is prepared to amend its Complaint in Virginia to include additional details showing these defendants are subject to suit in Virginia. This ruling also does nothing to prevent these defendants from being sued in Florida where they live. This case is ongoing, and the company intends to continue to vigorously pursue all persons it has alleged conspired to send spam to AOL members."

Lawyers with the Arlington law firm of Albo & Oblon said the Court's dismissal was significant, considering the growing number of publicized lawsuits in Virginia against alleged spammers.

"[This] is an important decision that will impact all lawsuits brought in Virginia against out-of-state defendants for allegedly participating or enabling bulk e-mail transmissions, or 'spam'," defense attorney Seth Berenzweig said in a statement.

AOL has claimed victory against spammers in the past. In March 2002, the company settled a major lawsuit against accused spammer Netvision Audiotext. The Fort Lauderdale, Fl.-based firm, which operates a network of adult Web sites, agreed to pay what AOL spokespeople called "significant" monetary damages.

But the ISP's victories are short-lived and the company recently told e-marketers that spam levels had doubled in the last six months, and its Internet unit would soon block over a billion unsolicited bulk e-mail messages a day.

AOL sees fighting spam, which ranks as its No. 1 customer complaint, as key to fulfilling its mission of being responsive to its 27 million members' concerns. This member-centric focus, which was reiterated by AOL CEO Jonathan Miller, has led AOL to let its members determine what is spam. With its latest software, the ISP included a "report spam" button to allow users to easily flag e-mails that have gotten through its server-side anti-spam defenses.

Members have taken to using the button liberally, with AOL receiving 4 million reports a day. While AOL uses the level of reports as a guide to investigating spammers, some e-mail marketers have worried about getting mislabeled by customers using the button as an unsubscribe mechanism.

AOL has a Web site (postmaster.info.aol.com) to help educate marketers and subscribers about its e-mail policies.