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AOL spam threat rescinded

A small group of bulk emailers reneges on its threat to post online 5 million America Online email addresses.

A small group of bulk emailers has reneged on its boisterous threat to post online 5 million America Online email addresses--which was to be in protest of the online service's antispam policy.

As previously reported, AOL and at least one of its members threatened to file lawsuits if the National Organization of Internet Commerce (NOIC) carried out its plot to broadcast the names on the Net on January 8.

The NOIC cited AOL members' requests to not have their email addresses posted as the reason for its pullback in a letter posted on the group's Web site.

The little-known Chino, California-based group contends that AOL's historic fight against spammers that send messages across its network is prohibiting legitimate small businesses from marketing to consumers who may be interested in the advertisements. The NOIC was going to publish the email addresses in order to get AOL's attention, because the group said its requests for meetings had been ignored.

Initially, the group said it would publish 1 million AOL addresses on New Year's Eve, giving other direct marketers 24 hours to lift the list to possibly send AOL customers unsolicited email. As of early Friday, the group pledged to go forward, but by the end of the day an open letter on its Web site stated:

"Due to the many requests that we have received by AOL members to not post these addresses, we have made a decision to respect their wishes and as a result will not be posting the addresses on January 8," NOIC president Joseph Melle stated. "We feel that we have shown that we respect the wishes of AOL members by not posting the 5 million email addresses, and we think that AOL should respect their wishes by allowing those who wish to receive legitimate offers via email to do so."

The NOIC says its goal is to eliminate pornographic and "get-rich-quick" spam so that direct marketers can advertise goods and services on the Net more effectively. But AOL and many of its members have one word for what the NOIC promotes: spam--and they don't like it.

AOL, whose system is plagued by junk email despite its efforts to rid itself of it, has a long history of combating spam. Judges have ruled in more than one case that junk emailers have no constitutional right to send spam.

AOL sent a legal notice to the NOIC last week, stating it could seek monetary damages if its service or members are affected by the posting of the list.

In addition, Philip Kirschner, an AOL member who is also a City University of New York law student, told CNET's NEWS.COM last week that he planned to sue the NOIC for invasion of privacy if his address was published. The NOIC's retreat, he says, was not due to AOL's fury--but that of users.

"AOL as a company failed to take action in this matter in my opinion," he said. "If I was the head of AOL legal, my papers would have been filed with the district court already."

No one will know for sure if the NOIC ever possessed 5 million AOL email addresses. However, it is not hard to "harvest" email names on the Net, especially for a group such as the NOIC.

For example, the NOIC's Joseph Melle is also the president of a company called TSF Marketing, which is in the business of selling email lists with up to 25 million email addresses for $239. His brother, Damien Melle, who works for the NOIC, said he has a personal AOL account, which would give him access to chat rooms, forums, and AOL directories that contain millions of addresses. Such an act would be a violation of AOL's terms of service agreement.