AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft and Earthlink have used the recently passed US anti-spam legislation for the first time to sue more than 220 companies they say are responsible for hundreds of millions of spam e-mails.

The ISPs have bandied together to launch six lawsuits that target the worst spammers using "outlaw tactics", according to Yahoo general counsel Mike Callahan. They are the first to use the CAN-SPAM legislation that became law in the States in January and the lawsuits will be seen as a crucial test of the law's effectiveness.

"If you're a spammer, this is not a great day for you," said AOL's general counsel Randall Boe, in boisterous mood. "Ultimately, we're going to locate you and sue you."

The lawsuits, filed in federal courts in California, Virginia, Georgia and Washington, name just five individuals and five companies, with at least 215 other unnamed defendants. A joint statement said that the ISPs are confident they can use the expanded powers given under CAN-SPAM to identify the unnamed defendants and shut them down.

"We're only a couple of subpoenas away from standing on someone's doorstep," said Earthlink's assistant general counsel Les Seagraves.

An exact number of spammers targeted in the lawsuits could not be given, we were told, because they are still investigating the cases. The four companies are sharing information in order to track and identify spammers, but said they were unable to ascertain what percentage of spam traffic on the Net resulted from those in the lawsuit.

Those targeted in the lawsuits are thought to be behind the endless advertisements for penis enlargement pills, weight loss supplements, adult content websites, mortgage offers, cable descramblers, university diplomas, Viagra, and other such products that appear daily in people's inboxes.

The spam identified in the lawsuits violate one or more sections of the CAN-SPAM law, including false "from" addresses, no physical address in the e-mail and no option to unsubscribe. Much of the spam also advertised illegal products or used deceptive advertising, according to the ISPs.

Although many of the defendants use computers outside of the US to send the spam, the companies believe they will be able to use the CAN-SPAM law to bring the defendants into US court, said deputy general counsel at Microsoft, Nancy Anderson. Spammers who think the US can't prosecute them because they operate offshore believe a "myth", Anderson claimed. Their spam causes damage to US ISPs and consumers, she added.

The success of the lawsuits will be fundamental in testing whether the law can indeed punish spammers and, more crucially, cut down on the amount of spam produced each day - which some estimate makes up as much as 75 per cent of all email traffic. When the law was passed, critics said it wouldn't make the slightest difference and pointed to the fact that spam actually increased after the law was passed. However, that is only to be expected as the law's penalties have yet to be applied and won. Once - or rather if - that happens, the landscape may alter dramatically.

The lawsuits launched yesterday are:

  • An AOL lawsuit against Davis Wolfgang Hawke, also known as Dave Bridger, Braden Bournival and an unknown number of "John Does", for allegedly sending millions of pieces of spam advertising Pinacle penis enlargement pills, weight loss supplements, hand-held devices called "personal lie detectors" and a product called the "Banned CD". The lawsuit, filed in Virginia, also alleges that Hawke also offered to provide a number of spam-related services, including millions of AOL addresses and "bulk friendly hosting" on servers located in China, Latin America and other countries. E-mails from Hawke and the others have generated at least 100,000 complaints from AOL users, according to the company. A message left at a telephone number identified as Bridger's was not immediately returned.
  • A second AOL lawsuit, also filed in Virginia, against 40 unknowns accused of advertising several products, including adult-themed websites and business opportunities. The senders' identities are hidden through fraudulent means and contain misleading subject lines, according to AOL. This group of alleged spammers has prompted more than 500,000 complaints from AOL users.
  • An EarthLink lawsuit against 75 unnamed spammers, advertising prescription drugs, mortgage leads, cable descramblers, university diplomas and get-rich-quick schemes, among other products. The lawsuit, filed in Georgia, accuses the defendants of hiding their identities with falsified headers and fake "from" lines, among other tactics.
  • A Microsoft lawsuit, filed in Washington, against JDO Media, based in Florida, and 50 unnamed defendants. Microsoft accuses the defendants of using open proxies and false header information to hide their identities while advertising a multi-level marketing program. A search for JDO Media found no contact information.
  • A second Microsoft lawsuit, also filed in Washington, against 50 unnamed defendants doing business as the Super Viagra Group. The defendants allegedly advertised so-called Super Viagra and a weight-loss patch using open proxies and hijacked computers. The spam also uses misleading transmission information and subject lines, according to Microsoft.
  • A Yahoo lawsuit, filed in California, against Eric, Matthew and Barry Head, and their companies Gold Disk Canada, Head Programming and Infinite Technologies. Yahoo alleges its members received about 94 million pieces of spam from the Heads in January. The defendants use open proxies to disguise the origin of their messages, which advertise life insurance, debt consolidation and travel services, Yahoo alleges. The operation also uses deceptive subject lines and sells e-mail addresses to other marketers, Yahoo said. A search for the Heads' contact information was unsuccessful.

CAN-SPAM co-sponsors Senators Conrad Burns and Ron Wyden praised the four ISPs for filing the lawsuits. "Today's filing proves that the days of spamming with impunity are finally over and all those who abuse e-mail and threaten its viability as the Internet's most popular and useful application should take notice," Wyden said in a statement. "These suits will have to be settled in a court of law, but I believe this action marks the dawn of a new day for spammers - one in which they face real accountability."