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Microsoft takes spam fight to court

The software giant targets the senders of commercial e-mail that includes false pitches and pornography.

Intensifying its campaign against spammers, Microsoft announced Tuesday that it has taken legal action in the company's home state of Washington and in the United Kingdom.

Microsoft said it filed 13 civil suits against U.S. defendants, accusing them of spamming Microsoft customers with deceptive e-mail. It also filed two suits in the United Kingdom, where the defendants are accused of illegally harvesting Microsoft e-mail addresses for use in building spam mailing lists. Microsoft accused the defendants in the 15 suits of being collectively responsible for sending the company's customers more than 2 billion unsolicited commercial messages.

Efforts to combat spam are on the rise on the legislative, legal and technological fronts. The U.S. Congress and several states are drafting new laws against spam, and both companies and individuals are increasingly bringing their spam grievances to court. Companies from Microsoft to tiny start-ups are developing new varieties of e-mail filters that act on individual in-boxes and entire e-mail networks.

"Spam is a growing problem and it's a global problem," Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, said at a news conference in Redmond, Wash., to announce the suits. "We believe that a multifaceted approach is needed...We at Microsoft are ramping up our efforts to fight spam around the world."

Microsoft singled out a number of specific e-mail sending practices in its suits, including those that use deceptive and fraudulent messages, unsolicited pornographic messages and ads for sexual services, and false virus warnings.

Another spam practice Microsoft targeted in the suits is the "spoofing" of the sender's e-mail address. One side effect of this practice, the company said, is that spammers falsely make it appear that the messages are coming from users of Hotmail, Microsoft's free, Web-based e-mail service.

Microsoft doesn't name specific defendants in some of the suits, but could gain the ability to subpoena documents that would identify the alleged spammers. Indeed, Microsoft said Tuesday that it had succeeded in naming the defendants in similar "John Doe" suits it filed in California in March.

AOL Time Warner also has pressed its share of lawsuits against named and unnamed defendants, as has EarthLink.

Some industry spam fighters applauded Microsoft's move, but suggested the company should get its own spam house in order in addition to pressing its case against other offenders.

"Aggressive moves by any large company against spammers who break the law are very welcome," said Stephen Cobb, senior vice president of ePrivacy Group, which this week released spam-fighting software for Internet service providers. "However...right now ISPs are telling us they see a lot of spam coming from Microsoft's own Hotmail servers, which are being abused by spammers. And a lot of people would probably say that would be the best place for the company to start cleaning up spam."

Among its recent antispam measures, Microsoft has taken steps to limit the use of Hotmail by spammers. In May, the company imposed a limit of 100 outgoing e-mails per day on Hotmail accounts.

Microsoft's domestic suits are lodged under Washington's spam law. In Europe, the company is relying on the U.K.'s Misuse of Computers Act.

Microsoft said its domestic suits also have an international dimension. In one suit, against an alleged California spammer, the e-mail server in question was registered in Belize.

The company also pledged more European lawsuits "wherever there are consumers harmed by spam," Smith said. "We'll do whatever it takes to be effective going forward with this problem."

Smith said that Microsoft was seeking injunctive relief as well as monetary damages "so that there is some real pain in people's pocketbooks when they engage in this kind of activity."