At the World Economic Forum’s get-together in Davos in January, Bill Gates predicted that unsolicited e-mail would cease plaguing the world by 2006. A foolhardy forecast, no doubt—what global problems ever get fixed in two years?—but this week Mr Gates took a small step towards keeping his word.
On Wednesday March 10th, Microsoft and three other technology giants—Yahoo!, America Online and EarthLink—announced that they had filed lawsuits against more than 100 people they accuse of sending out countless junk marketing e-mails, known as spam. The lawsuits, filed in federal courts in California, Virginia, Georgia and Washington state, were among the first to cite a CAN-SPAM law that took effect across America in January.
The law, which was overwhelmingly passed by Congress last year, makes it a crime to send junk e-mail using misleading subject lines or false return addresses. It creates more uniform protections than the patchy laws passed by individual states.
Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo! and EarthLink have issued lawsuits for breach of the CAN-SPAM Act. These cite spammers identified by the Spamhaus Project’s “Register of Known Spam Operations”. Brightmail provides anti-spam technology.
Spam is a headache for almost everyone. Some 62% of all e-mails are unsolicited junk promising cheap university diplomas, penis enlargement and other delights, according to Brightmail, an anti-spam group.
This week’s lawsuits are just the latest courtroom assault against the spammers. Last June, Microsoft, whose MSN/Hotmail e-mail service is one of the world’s most popular (and junk-ridden), filed civil lawsuits in state courts against 15 alleged spammers. AOL, likewise prodded by angry customers, filed suits of its own last year. And EarthLink has already collected millions of dollars in anti-spam settlements.
However, legal action is of limited use. Spammers crop up like mushrooms after rain, so it will be impossible to prosecute everyone. Moreover, even if most American spammers are somehow shut down, overseas ones will have few inhibitions, out of reach of American law (though Microsoft has already gone after one or two junk e-mail senders in other countries). So e-mail providers are scrambling to find solutions in technology as well as the courtroom. They are weeding out those mass e-mails they can, or asking senders to confirm their identities.