Microsoft Back in Court – To Sue Spammers

Microsoft has filed suit against 15 spammers in the United States and United Kingdom as part of a stepped-up campaign to work with government agencies and other Internet companies to can spam.

The lawsuits claim the 15 defendants sent some 2 billion unwanted and deceptive e-mail messages to members of Microsoft’s MSN service and its Web-based Hotmail e-mail service.

The move puts Microsoft, which repeatedly has been forced to defend itself against various lawsuits, in the rare position of being the plaintiff — and a defender of the individual consumer.

Microsoft the Avenger

Microsoft, which announced the legal action at simultaneous press events in Redmond, Washington, and London, said the suits target “the most misleading, deceptive and offensive spam e-mail received by Microsoft customers.”

“Spam knows no borders,” Microsoft counsel Brad Smith said. “It is an issue that requires global coordination, so that industry and government have the maximum ability to protect consumers.”

Spam Brigade

The suits target e-mail senders who misled recipients about the true contents of their messages, in some cases prompting them to unwittingly open e-mail containing pornographic images or solicitations for dating services. One case involves messages that appeared to contain a virus warning and directed users to download a program that actually enabled third parties to track their movements online.

Several of the defendants are named as “John Doe,” indicating that Microsoft has not been able to trace the messages’ origins.

Others are company names, such as Email Gold Inc., which hawked a CD containing tools needed to become a spammer and allegedly continued to sell its wares after receiving a cease-and-desist order from Microsoft. Another defendant, the E-Offer Store, allegedly disguised a wide range of spam for dating services, debt counseling, car loans and mortgage refinancings in e-mails designed to look like messages from legitimate acquaintances.

Fear Factor

Other defendants are accused of spoofing the sender’s e-mail address to circumvent existing spam filters.

Forrester Research analyst Jim Nail told the E-Commerce Times that such tough action is necessary because most passive and defensive approaches to stopping the flood of e-mail have failed so far.

“Filters are falling short,” Nail said, noting that even if Microsoft’s lawsuits are not successful, they may have a chilling effect on both the named defendants and other spammers. “It’s not going to cure the problem overnight, but it might help.”

The suits may become more potent in the context of increased federal activity aimed at better regulating e-mail content. Several anti-spam bills are circulating on Capitol Hill.

Baby Steps

Microsoft said the legal action is a necessary part of an overall approach to stemming the tide of spam — and some legislators seem to be in agreement.

“Today’s lawsuits are exactly the kinds of action we need to put illegal spammers out of business,” said Washington State Attorney General Christine Gregoire.

Microsoft also has pledged to take other steps to fight spam, such as improving spam filters on future versions of MSN and its e-mail software programs and continuing to assist in development of industry guidelines to better define spam. Microsoft also said it continues to work with AOL, Yahoo and EarthLink, which earlier this year announced they would collaborate to stem the tide of unwanted e-mail.

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