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ISP to fine spammers

A new policy from EarthLink Network designed to thwart junk emailers sets off a new debate in the antispam community.

A new policy from Internet service provider EarthLink Network (ELNK) designed to thwart junk emailers has set off a new debate in the antispam community.

Under EarthLink's policy, which the company will announce next week, those who engage in intentional spamming will have their membership revoked and will be slapped with a $200 fine for each day that they violate the policy.

In EarthLink's Acceptable Use Policy, the ISP defines spam as "the same or substantially similar unsolicited message to 50 or more recipients or 15 or more newsgroups in a single day."

EarthLink's actions illustrate how much an ISP's reputation is dependent on its perceived commitment to keep spam from their subscribers. The company boasted in a statement that it has "declared war on spammers," but those in the antispam community contend that EarthLink is so notorious for the amount of spam that comes from its network that many antispam advocates simply filter out all emails coming from its domain.

According to Harris Schwartz, EarthLink's information security administrator, the program has already been a resounding success. "We have dropped our number of complaints and the amount of spam traffic has decreased. We think we caught the bulk of the spam problem," he said.

Reaction to the policy is mixed. Antispam advocate Bill Mattocks, who runs a small ISP, endorsed the idea but had some reservations. "It depends on how vigorously they enforce it," he said.

Other antispammers feel that this solution may be a case of "too little, too late." Mark Welch, who calls himself a "spam victim," is one of the Netizens who refuses all email that comes from EarthLink's servers. Welch also alleges that since most spammers are either con artists or large companies who can afford $200 per day, the fine will not be a deterrent.

"Almost all spammers are fly-by-night scammers who are judgment-proof," he added.

However, EarthLink claims that large companies make up a very small percentage of the users they have caught spamming so far. "In our case, the majority of the people we've canceled have been just normal people doing it," Schwartz said.

Schwartz conceded that the battle he is fighting may not be winnable. "The problem is, every time we come up with a fix, the spammers get around it somehow. It doesn't matter what we do. It's frustrating."