- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Four of the nation’s largest Internet providers yesterday announced a wave of lawsuits under the new federal antispam law, accusing hundreds of people of sending millions of illegal e-mail messages to their subscribers.

AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo and Earthlink combined to file six lawsuits, the first major actions to be taken under the federal Can-Spam Act, which was enacted on Jan. 1. Five individuals and two companies are named in the suits, along with more than 150 unknown defendants, listed as “John Doe.”

“The spammers we’re suing today account for literally hundreds of millions of spam messages,” said Randall Boe, AOL’s executive vice president and general counsel, at a press conference in the District attended by executives of all four Internet providers.

Spam makes up more than half of all e-mail sent worldwide and costs businesses tens of billions of dollars each year, according to some estimates.

The companies, which must filter billions of spam messages each day, brought the suits after discovering that most of the spam they were receiving on their networks violated the Can-Spam Act by failing to contain a valid unsubscribe option or physical mailing address. In addition, most of the messages contained false subject lines and return addresses and were sent through vulnerabilities in computers that allow spammers to disguise their identity, the companies said.

Among the named defendants are JDO Inc., a company registered in Ocala, Fla., being sued by Microsoft. Yahoo, meanwhile, is suing a group of companies collectively known as “The Head Operation,” run by three men: Eric Head, Matthew Head and Barry Head.

Earthlink filed a lawsuit against more than 75 unknown defendants. AOL filed suit against 40 unknown defendants, as well as Davis Wolfgang Hawke, who is accused of making a living sending spam advertising for penis-enlargement pills, weight-loss supplements and devices known as “personal lie detectors.”

Mr. Hawke, who also uses the name Dave Bridger, was connected to several neo-Nazi groups while a student at Wofford University in the mid- to late 1990s. He is named in the suit with accused conspirator Braden Bournival, a 20-year-old high school dropout, and an unknown defendant.

Efforts to reach all of the named defendants by phone and e-mail yesterday were unsuccessful.

The companies filing the lawsuits said that they expect to uncover the identities of the “John Doe” defendants and that the lawsuits against the named defendants probably will provide clues.

“We’re only a couple of subpoenas away from stopping at someone’s door,” said Les Seagraves, Earthlink’s vice president and assistant general counsel.

Legal analysts said it is common in spam lawsuits to include unnamed defendants, because bringing a case gives the plaintiff greater investigative power. But, they cautioned that innocent people could be dragged into the case and said evidence against some of the defendants would be lacking.

Also, building a case against some of the spammers could prove difficult if their operations move outside the United States.

“What they are seeking to deter are some of the really aggressive players out there,” said Maureen Dorney, a technology lawyer with Gray Cary in Palo Alto, Calif. “But I’m really skeptical of that because the really bad guys have a predilection for moving offshore.”

The companies began building a case against the spam suspects last summer, before the Can-Spam Act became law. Most of the defendants’ activities already were illegal under previous computer crime laws, but company officials credited the Can-Spam Act with making it easier to bring a case.

Other companies involved in the fight against spam were encouraged by the actions yesterday.

“Many of these [spam] operations can’t survive one of these lawsuits,” said Paul Judge, chief executive officer of Ciphertrust, an Atlanta company that provides e-mail filtering for more than one-fifth of Fortune 500 companies.

Mr. Judge said he recently spoke with one spammer who is quitting the practice, in part because of the threat of lawsuits.

“As they start to see a lot of their friends now showing up, they start to see that it’s a very real threat to their business.”

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