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Spam case key

AOL is tackling porn vendors head on.

One of the problems with antispam legislation is the cost of prosecution. Because the FBI is already overloaded with cybercrime cases involving theft, fraud, and other felonies, spam is rarely prosecuted. So new antispam legislation will do little good unless it is given some teeth. In the absence of law enforcement, businesses that are hurt by spam can sue spammers and mete out justice through civil penalties.

Such is the case with AOL, which is suing Cyber Entertainment Network (CEN) and scores of affiliate webmasters for violating several laws related to CEN’s massive porn spam scam. CEN and several of its competitors offer affiliate webmasters cash in exchange for driving traffic to their sites.

While the original scam relied on banner ads to lead to CEN’s sleaze sites, the webmasters soon got creative and started spamming users. When this wasn’t enough, many of them developed pyramid schemes to convince other work-from-home individuals to flood company e-mail boxes with porn spam. Still not satisfied, many of these webmasters started hacking into corporate e-mail servers from which to send millions of spam messages from untraceable e-mail addresses.

Most of us–not just AOL users–have been targeted by these efforts. If you were tempted to sign up for one of those “Work form home, no selling” e-mail offers, or if you’ve seen one of the “Millions of active e-mail addresses now available,” your e-mail account is frequently target by the porn spam industry.

AOL’s suit, filed December 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, details the damage done to its 27 million users by these criminals and seeks an immediate injunction and damages of $25,000 for each day the webmasters spammed its network. The significance of the suit is that it holds CEN responsible for the actions of its affiliates, not just the affiliates.

If AOL’s suit is successful, it may bring the entire practice of porn spam–the vast majority of all spam on the Net–to its knees. CEN cannot itself engage in spam without exposing itself to federal prosecutors. It depends on the affiliate program for much of its traffic. And hundreds of other ISPs are likely to follow suit if AOL is successful.

One more thing about the case: AOL is suing CEN not on the basis of laws broken, but on the basis of violations of its antispam rules. While many of the rules are codified into law, some are stronger than present law provides. Because this is a civil suit, AOL can basically make the law and enforce it.

My hope is that it will be successful and we can get our e-mail systems back. If we don’t, we can expect the exponential growth of affiliates to further flood our e-mail systems.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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