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Spammers agree to cease-fire

Phil Lawlor says he's convinced the members of his junk emailer organization to police themselves.

Phil Lawlor of AGIS wants to control spam for the Internet community.

So the president and chief executive of the backbone Internet service provider has set up an association of junk emailers. The members of AGIS's Internet E-Mail Marketing Council (IEMMC) have agreed to abide by rules that will protect those who don't want spam, Lawlor says.

In the latest development of spam treaty talks, IEMMC members, including the most well-known and reviled emailer, Cyber Promotions, have agreed to halt bulk email for a few days until AGIS can set up a spam filtering system.

Antispam advocates are skeptical, to put it mildly.

And they have every reason to be, even Lawlor acknowledged.

Every day junk emailers send out millions of unsolicited emails hawking everything from soap to get-rich-quick schemes. More often than not, the email is nearly impossible to trace, let alone to reply to.

Sanford Wallace, president of Cyber Promotions has said that he will remove anyone from his list who requests it.

But Cyber Promotions hosts other bulk emailers that use Cyber Promotions' domain name and servers. Wallace has said he takes no responsibility for their actions.

All that is changing with IEMMC, Lawlor contended.

The association aims to legitimize junk email by forcing bulk emailers to abide by its rules, which include "washing" bulk mail lists with a list of names of people who have said they absolutely do not want to be bothered by junk email.

The rules also require bulk emailers to stop using other services' email systems to send mail and to stop forging mail. These practices have produced everything from mild irritatation to the shutdown of Internet service providers flooded by spam.

The penalty for breaking the association's rules is to be denied service by AGIS. Then, the argument goes, they won't have anywhere else to go as they will have been kicked off of every other service on the Net.

Antispammers say that AGIS and every other "legitimate" provider should be doing just that: denying access to bulk emailers. If everyone simply denied them access, they argue, then spammers would have nowhere to go.

But Lawlor contends that if AGIS doesn't host bulk emailers, they'll be driven underground where they won't be able to be controlled.

He adds that there are major companies out there--Fortune 500 companies--that have been compiling email lists, waiting for the time when bulk email becomes acceptable on the Net.

"These guys are committed to having themselves and their users start participating in the beginning of ethical bulk email," Lawlor says. "If it sounds like an oxymoron, I don't think it is."

"If there's a legitimate part of the industry, then it's going to be much easier to focus on the non-legitimate industries," he says. Antispammers don't buy it. They say AGIS is in it for the money and that it could choose to stop providing service.

Lawlor has paid a price for allowing spammers to use AGIS. On April 7, AGIS' system was attacked and disabled in a computer break-in. AGIS is now offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the hackers.

Lawlor says he doesn't think that the antispammers perpetrated the attack but others are not so sure.

In any case, he is convinced that the constant, but smaller, technological attacks AGIS endures, the threatening phone calls and even the egging of his own car, are related to the company's stance.

Why not just stop?

Sure, it's a business, Lawlor says. Spammers do pay their bills. But if bulk emailers went away tomorrow, his business would do just fine, Lawlor insists.

His real goal is to be the last stop for bulk emailers in order to control its illegitimate uses out there, he says. "We felt if we could provide a solution to the Net we'd be doing a better service to the industry."

"Nobody else was left," he says. "Everybody else shut them down and walked away."

Internet bulletin boards will doubtless suggest that Lawlor do the same thing.