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Spam king, AOL agree to disagree

A court leaves it up to users if they want to receive unsolicited email from Cyber Promotions.

As of Friday, America Online subscribers can decide for themselves if they want unsolicited junk email from spamster Sanford Wallace.

Wallace's Cyber Promotions and AOL announced a settlement today that both sides are calling a victory. Under the settlement AOL members will finally be able to effectively block unwanted spam from Cyber Promotions. But unlike the blow Cyber Promotions received earlier this week when a judge told the company it could no longer send email to CompuServe (CSRV) members, this settlement allows Cyber Promotions to continue sending its junk email to AOL members.

AOL offers a tool called "PreferredMail" that gives members the power to filter out email from domains that have generated spam. All known junk emailers are blocked unless users go to a special area to unblock domains from which they want email. Cyber Promotions had been circumventing the block by frequently changing the domain names from which it sent email. By limiting the number of domain names from which Cyber Promotions can send email, the settlement means AOL's PreferredMail block will work.

But the settlement also calls for AOL to periodically alert members that they can choose to opt to receive junk email through PreferredMail.

The settlement is backed up by a court order in the U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania.

Today's settlement closes a series of legal battles between Cyber Promotions and AOL that started last March when Cyber Promotions sued AOL in a Philadelphia court for allegedly prejudicing Internet service providers against Wallace's company.

AOL won a separate case in November that told Wallace to stop his mass emailing. When Cyber Promotions appealed that case, both suits were consolidated in a single case.

The whole tangled legal story ends today in a settlement both sides claim as a victory.

"This was a business model that we were considering regardless of AOL's position," Wallace said today. "This way we know the mail is going to people who want it."

AOL said something similar. "This decision is a big win for AOL members because it puts them in control of their email. They can still receive Cyber Promotions junk email if they want. But most members don't," David Phillips, associate general counsel said today.

It is unclear whether today's court-ordered settlement will serve as a precedent in future spamming cases. On the one hand, Wallace's agreement with AOL to send commercial email only to those who want it shows there is some room for compromise.

But Cyber Promotions itself still faces several other suits and other judges have come down much harder on the spam king.

Yesterday, for example, U.S. District Judge James Graham of Ohio issued a preliminary injunction blocking Cyber Promotions from sending unsolicited junk email to any address maintained by CompuServe.

Graham said junk spamming is not protected speech. "The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides no defense for such conduct," the 32-page ruling says.

Prodigy has also gone after Wallace. In December, Wallace's Cyber Promotions agreed to stop using Prodigy's name to deliver its junk email. That settlement also included a cash payment of less than $10,000, according to Wallace.