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Spam is ICQ's latest headache

Users of America Online's popular instant messaging software are discovering that the service is also a way for marketers to "seek" them.

Most Netizens think of instant messaging software as a quick way to chat with friends and coworkers.

But as some users of America Online's ICQ chat and instant message client are learning, the services also can give marketers an easy way to "seek" them.

Unlike spam--most of which usually is left unopened or trashed upon receipt--ICQ's blinking yellow note, which signals users that a message is waiting, usually is opened seconds after it appears.

Despite campaigns for new laws to curb junk email, most longtime email users have come to accept and even tolerate spam. It's almost inevitable with email, but with ICQ, it's a different story.

"I've gotten spam twice. Both times it was an invitation to visit a porn site. And no, I wouldn't keep using ICQ if spam became a constant occurrence," one ICQ user told via email.

"I received a URL to visit a porn site and was disgusted. Unlike email, I have no idea what the message is about, so I'm more inclined, even excited, to open it. I'm disappointed," wrote another reader, who received her first spam last week after having used the service since it launched back in 1996.

Ironically, AOL has been one of the most adamant opponents of junk email. It argued in several successful lawsuits that spam overburdens its network and received court orders to ban junk emailers from its service. The company also has worked closely with federal lawmakers to draft legislation targeting spammers.

ICQ's Terms of Service (TOS) says, "By using the ICQ Software and its privacy and security features, you may be subject to various risks, including among others: Spoofing, eavesdropping, sniffing, spamming, breaking password, harassment, fraud, and forgery."

ICQ, which has 28 million registered users and was acquired by AOL last June, says it hasn't received enough complaints to ban the use of spam, but it does give users a variety of tools to block it.

"If you wanted to set ICQ: Flower power your ICQ universe and limit it to three people, you could," said ICQ spokeswoman Jeanne Meyer. "You would only hear from those three people and shut the rest of the universe out."

In order to send a message to someone, ICQ users must add recipients to a contact list. Spammers can either target specific individuals by typing in their name or email address, or they can target random users based on their interests, background, affiliation, phone number, or profession.

Meyer says the best way to block spam is to set your preferences so that a potential spammer who wants to add you to the contact list must first receive your authorization.

"If you don't do that, anybody could add you to their contact list and monitor you all the time," said Meyer.

Users also can block individuals or groups of people from sending messages.

But what if ICQ spam becomes more prevalent? Meyer says ICQ will "let members decide what's right for them."

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Since being acquired by AOL, ICQ has become ensnared in other Net content controversies. Earlier this week, it abruptly pulled a "dirty word" content filtering option that was pointing users to a list that also barred phrases such as "," the home page for the National Organization for Women.

Some analysts say that as long as blocking tools are available, ICQ probably won't lose members.

As for ICQ spam, William Blair equity analyst Abhishek Gami says it was inevitable.

"Look at pop-up ads," he said. "Everyone hated AOL for pop-up ads, but now you can't go to GeoCities today without seeing a pop-up ad. You close it and move on. It's the price you pay for a free product."

Even more interesting than porn-related and get-rich-quick spam is the marriage of instant messages and advertisements, he added.

"[ICQ is] going to find a way to have people opt in to certain merchants or Web sites and let them know that they're interested in receiving messages in real time," said Gami.

For example, bookseller Barnes & Noble might send out a "50 percent off" sale to a massive list of ICQ users who opt in. "[If customers] explicitly come to you and say, 'Please bug me.' That's a gold mine waiting to happen."