Major E-Mail Providers Bare Can Spam Teeth

WASHINGTON — Four of the world’s largest e-mail providers are launching a coordinated legal attack against kingpin spammers violating the provisions of the two-month-old Can Spam Act.

At a press conference just blocks from the White House, where President Bush signed the Can Spam Act in December, America Online, EarthLink, Microsoft and Yahoo! said Wednesday six lawsuits involving hundreds of defendants were filed Tuesday in Virginia, California, Georgia and Washington state.

The civil complaints charge the defendants with sending a combined total of “hundreds of millions” of prohibited bulk spam to customers of the four networks. According to company executives, the unsolicited e-mail contained deceptive solicitations for get-rich schemes, pornography, diploma mills, cable descramblers, mortgages and other common types of spam.

“Congress gave us the necessary tools to pursue spammers with penalties,” said AOL Executive Vice President and General Counsel Randall Boe. “Consumers should take note that the new law not only empowered us to help can the spam, but also to can the spammers as well — and we’ll do that, one spam kingpin at a time if necessary.”

The Can Spam Act provides new enforcement tools for e-mail and Internet service providers (ISPs) and criminalizes specific tactics spammers use to spread junk e-mail. Under the new law, individuals are barred from suing spammers but ISPs can file civil actions and state and federal authorities can follow with criminal complaints.

Among the illegal spam practices targeted in Tuesday’s lawsuits are use of open proxies, spoofing and the absences of physical addresses and unsubscribe options.

“We’re holding spammers directly accountable for the relentless infiltration of people’s inboxes,” Mike Callahan, Yahoo! senior vice president and general counsel, said. “With federal legal remedies and industry collaboration, we have a significant new advantage.”

AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft are the initial members of an anti-spam coalition formed last year. In a joint press release issued at that time, the trio said they would concentrate on protecting consumers from receiving spam, preventing the use of e-mail services to send spam, and working with e-mail marketers to recommend technical approaches, policies and best practices to distinguish legitimate e-mail from spam.

Since that time, EarthLink, then Comcast and British Telecom joined the group, which came to be called the Anti-Spam Technical Alliance (ASTA).

“Together we are using a tough new federal law, combined with existing state laws, to let criminal spammers know that the nation’s leading Internet providers are united by a common goal,” said Les Seagraves, EarthLink’s chief privacy officer. “Collectively, we are committed to sending spammers the message that we will find them and use the full force of the law to stop them.”

Although the majority of the lawsuits target “John Does” as defendants, the legal actions also specifically name Davis Wolfgang Hawke (a.k.a., Dave Bridger), Braden Bournival and the Head Operation, a spamming operation run by Eric Head, Matthew Head and Barry Head.

The Head Operation, according to Yahoo!, sent approximately 94 million junk e-mails to Yahoo! subscribers in January. The group, which does business as Gold Disk Canada, Head Programming and Infinite Technologies, stands accused of the usual spammer tactics in addition to collecting personal information for sale, using false domain names registered in China and employing color font tricks to hide randomized text in an attempt to circumvent Yahoo’s e-mail filters.

“The Head Operation represents the single, largest interruption problem on the Yahoo network,” said Yahoo’s Callahan.

AOL accuses Hawke and Bournival of providing “250 free proxies every day to [Hawke’s] affiliates” and offering to “pay them $20 per sale for Pinacle, an herbal penis enlarger.” AOL also claims the two offered “bulk friendly hosting” on servers located in China, Latin America and other foreign countries so that mailers could “point your domains to our server if it helps you get into specific domains like AOL.”

The two primary sponsors of the Can Spam Act, Senators Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), were quick to praise the industry action.

“Today’s filing proves that the days of spamming with impunity are finally over, and all those who abuse email and threaten its viability as the Internet’s most popular and useful application should take notice,” Wyden said in a statement. “Action by ISPs is one of several enforcement options in the Can Spam law; today that option is being employed with great force, just as Senator Burns and I envisioned when we first started working on Can Spam some four years ago.”

Wyden added that while the cases will have to be decided in a court of law, “I believe this action marks the dawn of a new day for spammers — one in which they face real accountability.”

Burns said in a statement, “For the first time, kingpin spammers will finally see there are real consequences for their actions. I am glad to know today’s announcement from AOL, Earthlink, Microsoft and Yahoo will help defend all e-mail users and cause serial spammers to think twice before they click the ‘send’ button.”

Burns and Wyden are also encouraging strong enforcement under other provisions of the Can Spam law, and have written Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Timothy Muris requesting that the agency move promptly to prepare enforcement cases against high-volume spammers.

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