Time Warner's America Online unit has joined its rivals in suing people and companies responsible for unwanted e-mail advertisements known as spam.

LOS ANGELES--Time Warner's America Online unit has joined its rivals in suing people and companies responsible for unwanted e-mail advertisements known as spam.

The collaborative effort between AOL, Microsoft, EarthLink and Yahoo! marks the first major industry lawsuits filed under a new federal anti-spam law known as the CAN-SPAM Act, which went into effect Jan. 1.

Violators could be subject to massive fines, including as much as $100 per violation of CAN-SPAM. AOL also cites a Virginia law that might allow it to collect $1 for each spam sent to its members.

The four Internet giants filed six separate lawsuits in four states against hundreds of defendants. Some lawsuits name individuals and companies accused of spamming, while others name John Does who are described in such terms as "cable descrambler spammers" and "get rich quick spammers," depending on the kinds of products their e-mails advertised.

The four companies, which are responsible for the bulk of the nation's Internet and e-mail services, accuse various spammers of, among other things, sending junk e-mails without an unsubscribe option, using deception to sell products and disguising the origin of their e-mails.

When e-mail users have insisted that spammers remove them from their lists, they have simply sold the e-mail addresses to other spammers, one lawsuit alleges.

The coordinated effort by the four participants, who gathered last Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss the lawsuits they filed the preceding day, is partially the result of an anti-spam alliance they formed 11 months ago.

"Consumers should take note that the new law not only empowered us to help can the spam, but also to can the spammers as well, and we'll do that, one spam kingpin at a time if necessary," says AOL executive VP and general counsel Randall Boe.

One AOL lawsuit alleges that the company has received more than 100,000 complaints in less than a year about e-mails allegedly sent by Davis Wolfgang Hawke and unknown co-conspirators selling products under such headings as "the Banned CD" and "personal lie detectors."

Another accuses 40 John Does of being responsible for a half-million complaints from AOL users in just a few months. Those particular spam e-mails advertised pornography, business opportunities and low mortgage rates, with some spams including the false subject line, "important message from AOL."

Paul Bond is tech editor with Billboard sister publication The Hollywood Reporter.

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