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Netizen sues spam firm

The publisher of an email newsletter sues a bulk email company he alleges violated Washington state's antispam law.

Adam Engst wanted to file a lawsuit against a spammer the very day that Washington state's antispam law took effect June 11.

But he found that "it takes time to do everything right."

Now, Engst--publisher of a free Macintosh and Internet email newsletter--thinks he has found the perfect target for the suit: a company that not only sends unsolicited email using forged headers (one of the practices outlawed under the Washington law), but also sells software to enable others to do the same.

On Friday, Engst and three others at his company TidBITS filed a lawsuit against WorldTouch Network, alleging that the company had violated Washington state's law numerous times. WorldTouch sells the "Bull's Eye Gold" email address collection tool for $259, which allows people to harvest email addresses off the Web that they then use to send unsolicited bulk email.

A representative from WorldTouch could not be reached for comment.

Engst appears to be the first to actually sue a spammer based on Washington's new law. Earlier this month, a Washington man was awarded what is believed to be the first settlement from a spam case based on the same law. However, Bruce Miller, the man who got the settlement, never actually sued anyone. He sent letters threatening to sue, and one of the recipients paid him.

If Engst prevails in court, based on the law and the number of violations, he could be awarded a settlement totaling thousands of dollars.

But Engst said today he doesn't expect a penny.

"We're doing this because we want to test the law and to make a statement about the acceptability of spam," he said. "It's not acceptable."

Engst also is hoping that Washington's law will help set an example for other states.

"If we show Washington state's law is effective, other states will say, 'We can start the process,'" he said.

In fact, several states are considering or have considered antispam legislation, and the federal government also is mulling over legislation prohibiting certain types of unsolicited bulk email.

While some have criticized laws, saying they can't be enforced internationally, others have pointed out that since the bulk of Net users today reside in the United States, it would be nearly impossible to send out a mass emailing without hitting at least a few United States addresses.

And although Washington is far from the most populous state, it appears nearly impossible to avoid hitting Netizens there with spam, because most email addresses do not identify the residence of the recipient.

The actual suit could take as long as a year and a half to wend its way through the court system, Engst said, citing estimates by his attorney.

But Engst is patient when it comes to lawsuits--if not when it comes to spam.

By his own count, the rate of spam is "increasing radically." Between April 1997 and April 1998 he said he received a total of 2,300 pieces of junk email. But since April of this year--in just over three months-- he has already received 1,200 pieces of junk email.

A few pieces of junk email a day seems somewhat benign, even to those here and abroad who pay for access by the minute. But as the numbers increase, people get less and less patient--especially when they are paying, as do many--for each piece of email to be downloaded.

"What happens when you're getting 100 a day," Engst said. "And there's no reason that [wouldn't] happen." Plus, he added that "spammers are going to more and more efforts to make you read them first. They're getting harder and harder to identify.

"People are just hopping mad about this stuff," he added. "You feel so helpless. You can never get off any of these lists."