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Users react to AOL spam threat

A Netizen fights back against a bulk email company that is threatening to post online millions of America Online members' email addresses.

Philip Kirschner isn't depending on America Online to safeguard his email address from spammers.

The City University of New York law student has launched his own fight against a little-known bulk email trade group called the National Organization of Internet Commerce (NOIC), which threatened to post online as many as 5 million AOL email addresses on January 8--an act of protest for the giant online service's antispam policy.

Spam has a way of riling Net users and online access providers, who say the unwanted messages eat up See related story: Users react to AOL spam threat their valuable bandwidth, time, and money. Recently, for instance, mail servers at GTE crashed after being hit by spam. Such incidents have sparked a movement to ban spam under federal law.

Like many Net users, Kirschner despises unsolicited email. To shield his two email accounts, he claims to avoid Web pages that ask for his email address, and he doesn't participate in online market research studies or Net contests. He realizes it is not hard for other Net users to get his AOL address, but he was furious to learn that he was a pawn in a what he calls NOIC's "publicity stunt."

Kirschner warned the Chino, California-based group that if his email address shows up on its list, he would take the group to court.

"That would violate my privacy," he said today. "AOL has tons of lawyers, but I wanted to do it myself because my email account could be threatened and I take this as a personal attack."

After he laid out his intentions to NOIC, Kirschner says he was assured today that his AOL email address would not be on the list--a guarantee the country's largest online service has yet to get.

Despite AOL's legal threats, NOIC said today it plans to carry out its plan. Initially, the group said it would publish 1 million AOL addresses on New Year's Eve, giving other direct marketers 24 hours to lift the list to possibly send AOL customers unsolicited email.

The NOIC contends that AOL's historic fight against spammers who send messages across its network is prohibiting legitimate small businesses from marketing to consumers who may be interested in the advertisements. The group says it wrote to AOL to set up a meeting about NOIC's stated goal to eliminate pornographic and "get-rich-quick" spam so that direct marketers, such as its members, can advertise goods and services on the Net more effectively.

But AOL, whose system is plagued by junk email despite its efforts to rid itself of it, has a long history of fighting spam. And judges have ruled in more than one case that junk emailers have no constitutional right to send spam.

To many on the Net, "scam spam" and "legitimate marketing email" are the same thing. AOL never responded to the NOIC's letters requesting a meeting regarding the online service allowing the group's two members to send bulk messages to AOL's customers.

"We're trying to bring honest business to the Net in the form of bulk email, while weeding out scams. We do not feel that large companies such as AOL should make the decision for their 10 million members; it should be the recipients' decision whether they want an email," said Damien Melle, the NOIC's spokesman.

"The reason for the extra week is so we could get more names. AOL feels we are nobody. We are showing them they are wrong--we can make a point," Melle said.

The NOIC said it won?t post the list if AOL lets it send bulk email ads to the service's 10 million customers--but that's not going to happen, says the country's largest online service.

"We take this very seriously. We see this as a threat of cyber-terrorism," said AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato. "If they think this is going to change our very aggressive anti-junk email campaign, they're wrong. What this is about for AOL is protecting our members' experience."

AOL says it can take legal action if, for example, its terms of service agreement (TOS) was violated in order to "harvest" the email addresses. The company also could seek monetary damages if its service or members are affected by the potential posting of the list.

AOL has won cases against spammers who violated its TOS or purposely bypassed user controls to weed out unsolicited bulk email. (See related story)

The NOIC says it didn?t harvest the addresses. Rather, Melle said the group obtained the list from its founding member, TSF Marketing. On Wednesday, Melle said he didn't know how TSF was getting the email addresses, but TSF and the NOIC are both operated by his brother, Joe Melle. TSF Marketing is in the business of selling email lists with up to 25 million email addresses for $239. Also, Damien Melle said he has a personal AOL account, which would give him access to chat rooms, forums, and AOL directories that contain millions of addresses.

Trade groups such as the Internet Mail Consortium (IMC)--whose members include AOL, Microsoft, Netscape, and various email software companies--are calling the NOIC's protest "black mail."

Kirschner agrees. If his name doesn?t appear on the list, he says a court would likely find that he has no standing to ask for a preliminary injunction against the NOIC--although he says other AOL members would. But he also characterized the NOIC's scheme as extortion, and says he called the FBI today to inform the agency of the situation.

"I'm hoping that the FBI arrests [Melle] for blackmail, plain and simple," he said.