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Judge denies guilty plea in AOL spam case

Ex-AOL employee's hearing is postponed; judge cites vagueness in prosecutors' argument that theft violated Can-Spam.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
2 min read
A district judge in New York has refused to accept a guilty plea from a former America Online employee charged with stealing 92 million e-mail addresses from the online giant, citing vagueness in the prosecutors' argument that the theft violated the federal Can-Spam Act.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein on Tuesday postponed the hearing in hopes of consulting with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., about specifics in the Can-Spam Act's definition of why the defendant's practices were considered in violation of the law, a U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman confirmed. Hellerstein will rehear the case Jan. 28.

The judgment comes after federal prosecutors on Tuesday struck a plea agreement with former AOL engineer Jason Smathers, who is accused of filching the e-mail addresses and selling the list to spammers. Smathers allegedly used another employee's access code to steal AOL's entire database of screen names last spring, according to a court document.

Authorities said Smathers sold the list for $100,000 to Sean Dunaway, another defendant named in the complaint who runs an online gambling site. Dunaway, in turn, sold chunks of the list to an unnamed spammer who eventually cooperated with government investigators as part of the suit, the court papers said.

Users of AOL's various services are allowed to create multiple screen names to sign on, send e-mail and chat with other users on IM. While Smathers was able to download these screen names onto a separate disc, investigators said credit card numbers were not compromised during the theft.

The plea agreement could result in a prison sentence of up to two years and a hefty fine, according the Associate Press, citing a person familiar with the talks.

"We're going to continue to fully support the U.S. Attorney's efforts here any way we can," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said in an e-mail statement. "This is an ongoing issue, and we continue to believe that justice will take its proper course in this matter."

Since President Bush signed the federal antispam law a year ago, called the Can-Spam Act, companies and government officials have taken a harder stance against bulk spammers and fraudulent e-mail.

The law allows prosecutors and companies to sue bulk e-mailers who send messages with falsified e-mail headers and "sexually oriented" messages that are not properly labeled. Punishment could include prison terms.