October 20, 1997 1:55 PM PDT

AOL sues junk emailer

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For the second time in a month, America Online (AOL) is using federal court to try to rid its network of junk emailers.

AOL today announced that on Friday it filed the second federal lawsuit in a month in a broader attempt to set a legal precedent that would help rid not only AOL, but other networks, of spam.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, attempts to block Kentucky-based spammer Prime Data Worldnet Systems and its proprietor, Vernon N. Hale, from sending spam to AOL members, according to AOL.

AOL will argue that Prime Data Worldnet Systems and Hale "violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Lanham Act, and the Virginia Computer Crimes Act because it falsified information in order to reach AOL customers," said George Vradenburg, senior vice president and general counsel for AOL.

Neither Hale nor Prime Data could be reached for comment today.

The Computer Crimes Act does not directly address the issue of spam, but it does make it illegal for unauthorized users to break into computer systems. Vradenberg said that because this company and Over the Air Equipment, a company it sued late last month, use deceptive practices to get around AOL's spam filter, PreferredMail, they were not authorized to be on the system. AOL only authorizes email from people who "use true information," he said.

"It is an attempt to attack the larger problem," Vradenberg said. "We think we have a good shot at succeeding."

If AOL wins and ends up setting a precedent, Vradenberg is hoping it could perhaps pave the way for law enforcement agencies to become involved--and if that happens, spamming could cross the line from a civil matter to a criminal one.

The suit also charges that Prime Data "trespassed" on AOL's system, a charge that both AOL and CompuServe (CSRV) have successfully used in court before.

Although AOL has a filter in place that can weed out spam coming from certain domains, spammers such as Prime Data have learned technological methods of getting around the filter.

Prime Data "knowingly sent unsolicited bulk email through multiple domains and deliberately sought to evade AOL's mail controls in order to send the unsolicited bulk mailings," according to AOL.

AOL charged that Prime Data and Hale "ignored the Company's repeated requests to desist from sending unsolicited bulk emails."

The spam coming from Prime Data was especially irritating because one of the products being hawked included software that helps others evade AOL's mail controls. It also included get-rich-quick schemes.

The other spammer that AOL sued a month ago was advertising pornography.

Both "were good cases to test this precedent and each had a particularly offensive element," Vradenberg said.

While AOL has taken a hard line against spammers for at least a year, it also has one of the biggest spam problems in the industry because it is the No. 1 online service and because marketers like targeting AOL members, who tend to be newer to the Internet and more receptive to junk email.

 

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