June 10, 2003 4:27 PM PDT

AOL spam petitions cut both ways

AOL Time Warner may find that it's better to give than to receive--at least when it comes to antispam petitions.


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While the company's America Online unit is soliciting signatures from its tens of millions of subscribers, ostensibly to use in lobbying lawmakers to pass spam laws, it is simultaneously the target of a petition urging the company to crack down on spam in its chat rooms.

AOL has been promoting its weeks-old petition mostly in the spam information area of its online service, where it can also be found with the AOL keywords "spam petition." But the company plans to ramp up its signature collection in coming weeks with heavier exposure on its heavily trafficked welcome screen.

"I am an AOL member, fed up with spam and spammers who show no regard for me or the AOL community," reads the company's petition in part. "I want a voice in the fight against spam and I support the efforts of the Internet industry, policymakers, consumer advocates and other interested parties...to put an end to spam."

Internet service providers including AOL, Microsoft's MSN service and second-tier competitor EarthLink--along with Web-based e-mail providers like Yahoo--in recent weeks and months have been both cooperating and attempting to outdo one another in the fight against spam.

The companies are taking action on a number of fronts, including legal action against spammers, lobbying efforts to beef up legal prohibitions against spam, and technological hindrances to automated spam-sending mechanisms.

The motivation behind the recent push is twofold. On the one hand, the cost of spam is mounting as the services pour money into servers and network connections to support the deluge of unwanted e-mail.

On the other, the volume of spam on a particular network has become a marketplace liability, and the companies are falling over one another to prove to members and prospective subscribers that they are the most serious about mitigating the problem--particularly as studies and senators alike cite the effect of the spam problem on young people.

AOL petition AOL's petition, which in its first, lightly promoted three weeks has gained more than 100,000 signatories, is intended for use in the ISP's lobbying efforts.

"The petition will be used at the national and state level to inform policymakers about our members' strong desire for robust, intelligent antispam legislation," an AOL representative said in an instant-message interview. "It's a way for us to let our members express their concern about the issue and urge their elected officials to take strong and appropriate action."

AOL intends to break down the petitioners by state and region to lobby individual lawmakers, though it will not single out members by name.

While billed as a lobbying tool, the emotionally worded petition may be equally crafted to give AOL subscribers who want, as the petition puts it, "a voice in the fight against spam," a sense that both they and AOL are doing something about the problem.

Sending a different message
At least one AOL subscriber has taken the initiative to launch an independent petition--this one directed at AOL, rather than at elected officials.

"For years, AOL chat rooms have been spammed," reads the petition, launched on petition hosting site PetitionOnline.com. "It was okay at first, but soon pornography got involved. Chat rooms were no longer safe for children and teenagers (the main user of AOL instant-messenger service)."

Worse, the petition complains, automated software robots spam chat rooms and individual users with malicious links or Trojan horse viruses.

"AOL and MSN are competing as our best ISPs, and a main front for conflict is messengers," wrote petition author Saumitra Thakur, a 14-year-old high-school student in Sylvania, Ohio. "If AOL wants to stay in the running, it should rid itself of this horrid blemish in an otherwise fine service."

An AOL representative said the company was aware of the petition and intended to counter the chat-room or instant-message spam (what AOL calls "spIM") problem with the upcoming release of AOL 9, code-named "Blue Hawaii."

That software comes armed with new security and spam-fighting features the company is touting with its "safe broadband" campaign, including one called IMCatcher for thwarting chat-room spam.

The feature puts messages from unknown sources into a small scroll box in the lower left-hand corner of the chat-room window, rather than letting them pop up onscreen with messages from people in a subscriber's address book or IM buddy list.

 

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