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War of words, action on spam

Spam-fighting is the new watchword of major Internet access providers that are strengthening their rhetoric and actions against junk mailers.

Spam-fighting is the new watchword of major Internet access providers that are strengthening their rhetoric and actions against junk mailers weighing down their networks and customers.

Internet giant America Online on Thursday reminded its 35 million members of the company's vigilant stance against junk mail, and promised added spam-blocking tools in coming months. The company, which posted a letter on member welcome pages, said it already thwarts about 750 million pieces of unwanted e-mail daily.

This week, Microsoft pledged to bring several lawsuits against spammers it believes are pilfering e-mail addresses from its Hotmail members to send them junk mail. The coming suits follow one that Microsoft filed in federal court last week, charging anonymous people it suspects of having harvested e-mail addresses from its Hotmail servers to spam subscribers.

These efforts come shortly after EarthLink, the No. 3 Internet service provider, talked about a new line of spam-blocking, antivirus and Web filtering tools that will come out later this year.

All the companies are talking up efforts against spam at a time when consumers and the media are hyperaware of its growing, loathsome presence in e-mail in-boxes. ISPs record an up to threefold increase in the number of unsolicited e-mail sent to members in the last year; and as a result, they're fielding record consumer complaints, despite spam-blocking software that cuts back on the majority of it. Under pressure from rivals, Net access providers are seeking to offer consumers a service that is free of spam.

The discourse comes as software companies and legislators look for ways to solve the spam epidemic through the use of technology or law. Technology companies are considering options for new filters or protocol to bar spam from networks, and lawmakers are likely to put antispam laws on the front burner in the 108th Congress. Reasons behind this renewed focus may be that the volume of spam clogging e-mail servers could cost American companies billions of dollars a year; and in a reversal, the Direct Marketing Association now says it will lobby for antispam laws.

Still, ISPs are on the front lines of the fight.

"We still see the Internet as a rose, but the thorns are getting bigger," said Matt Cobb, director of product development at EarthLink.

The company has seen a 500 percent increase in spam messages to members in the last 18 months. It manages to cut back on about 70 percent to 80 percent of the junk, but it hopes to catch nearly 100 percent with new filtering tools coming in April.

AOL put up new welcome screens for its U.S. members on Thursday that links to a letter outlining its legal and technological war on spam, as well as tips on how to handle it. The company said it plans to introduce new spam filters in the next few months.

"We know the spam that's getting through is too much," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. "We're making a renewed vigorous effort to crack down on spam, and it's a multifront war."