January 28, 1998 2:05 PM PST

AOL sues porn spammers

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America Online (AOL), in its ongoing battle to try to clear its spam-riddled network of junk email, has filed two more lawsuits.

This time, it is suing two Michigan companies that focus on sending AOL members to pornographic sites.

AOL announced today that on January 22 it filed a suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. AOL is seeking an injunction to stop LCGM Incorporated and Web Promo Incorporated, both of Madison Heights, Michigan, from sending its users junk email. AOL is seeking damages from both companies, which are owned and operated by the same individuals, according to AOL.

Spammers--businesses that send mass emailings across the Internet in hopes of getting a few money-generating responses--have long targeted AOL customers.

The same things that make AOL attractive to its customers also make it attractive to junk emailers: AOL has more members than any other service--11 million and counting, according to the company. Email addresses of many of its customers are readily available through user profiles and chat rooms as well as several mailing lists on the market. And AOL, because it is user-friendly, attracts more mainstream, less Net-savvy users who sometimes are more receptive to junk email.

But while a few people do respond to junk email, many users complain about the constant onslaught they get, especially after they visit chat rooms and other areas on AOL where their screen names are exposed for all to see.

AOL has increasingly used the court system to get rid of spam, targeting specific companies. While the courts have generally ruled in AOL's favor, the problem is that even as some junk emailers are put out of commission, others are jumping into the business, because there are few barriers to entry. Generally, all it takes to send junk email is a few hundred dollars for programs and connectivity. Spammers tend to jump from one network to the next after violating the almost ubiquitous antispam rules.

Many who are fighting against spam have said that the only solution they can see for now is the legal system--not just in the form of lawsuits, but also with legislation. Even that solution is full of problems, however. If junk email is banned outright in the United States, spammers could easily head to networks outside the country.

For right now, however, AOL is taking aim at spammers one at a time, using a currently available legal recourse--litigation.

AOL is charging in its current suit that the two defendants violated federal and state laws by spamming AOL members with advertisements from several domains, including "live-video-sex.com," "pornjunkie.com," and "hot-sex.com."

The companies have more than 70 domain names registered with the InterNIC, the vast majority of which appear to be pornographic in nature.

As with the other cases, AOL "demanded that both companies stop sending unsolicited bulk email," according to AOL. But the companies continued sending email that employed deceptive techniques--such as using phony headers--that circumvented AOL's spam filters.

A spokesman for LCGM declined to comment.

Though AOL has widely implemented spam filters, they only work when email is properly labeled. While some of the junk emailers who have been trying to make spam "legitimate" will use proper headers, most do not, as they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so.

To exacerbate the matter, AOL is alleging in its suit that the companies in question forged AOL's domain name in their headers, making it appear to members that the spam came from another AOL member. In fact, many spammers use AOL's name to try to fool members.

The suit also targets the companies' practice of sending email with direct hypertext links to pornographic sites.

AOL members have complained strongly about pornographic spam, which is sent to members regardless of age or personal preference.

In many pornographic-related email messages, the user will be instructed to click on a link that takes him or her directly to a page with pornographic images. Sometimes the email will indicate that it is pornographic in nature; other times, it doesn't. Sometimes sites have a front door that directs underage users to go elsewhere--but often users are faced with pictures they may not be expecting.

 

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