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AOL spam dispute escalates

AOL e-mail graphic

Business group threatens to release millions of e-mail addresses

In this story: December 31, 1997
Web posted at: 3:15 p.m. EST (2015 GMT)

CHINO, California (CNN) -- An Internet business group and the world's biggest Internet service provider, America Online, were poised Wednesday for a legal showdown in a dispute over pitching products and services to AOL users via e-mail.

If AOL doesn't back down from its opposition to the National Organization of Internet Commerce (NOIC), the California-based group threatens to put the e-mail addresses of millions of AOL users on its Web site, making them available for downloading by any business, group or individual seeking to make mass electronic mailing

NOIC, a non-profit trade organization representing small businesses and bulk-mailers, originally set Thursday as the day it would reveal the e-mail addresses of 1 million of AOL's 10 million customers.

On Wednesday, however, NOIC escalated the threat, announcing it would release 5 million AOL e-mail addresses on January 8.

AOL vowed to fight NOIC in court, if necessary, and said it hoped the group would reconsider.

The e-mail addresses NOIC said it will post are already available on CD-ROMs at prices ranging up to $300 depending on the number of names.

AOL does not profit on such transactions but it does make money by charging businesses for access to its customers.

Group says AOL is anti-small business

NOIC president Joe Melle said his group is making the threat against AOL because it believes the online service is trying to put small companies on the Internet out of business. He told the Los Angeles Times that barring the use of affordable bulk e-mail on the network would prevent small business from gaining access to as many as half the regular users of the Internet.

NOIC "is not making any profit and has nothing to gain by giving these names away except gaining more members," Melle said in faxes and e-mail messages to news organizations.

On Tuesday, America Online sent a letter to NOIC promising to "seek full legal redress, including compensatory and punitive damages," if the e-mail addresses are posted on the Web.

AOL calls plan 'cyber-terrorism'

"We really view this as an act of threatened cyber-terrorism, and we don't intend to give in to it," Randall Boe, AOL associate general counsel, told the Times. AOL customers lodge thousands of complaints about spam every day, he said.

Melle said his group was responding to AOL's threat to sue by increasing the promised list of addresses. If AOL "wishes to discuss policies with us or agrees to hear our proposals and work with us like responsible businesses . . . we look forward to talking with them," the NOIC president said.

Spam spat

The proliferation of unsolicited commercial e-mail messages, commonly referred to as junk mail or "spam," has become one of the Internet's biggest problems.

Customers of online services who pay for the time they remain connected consider "spam" mail a costly nuisance. Even those who pay a flat fee for unlimited access call the junk e-mail intrusive and time-consuming to delete.

Among the items inundating electronic mailboxes are annoying or offensive messages, some of them offering sexually explicit material or get-rich-quick schemes. AOL says at any given time 5 percent to 30 percent of its e-mail traffic is spam.

Correspondent Brian Nelson contributed to this report.

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