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PC World

Yahoo sues spammer

April 29, 1999
Web posted at: 6:20 p.m. EDT (2220 GMT)

by Andrew Brandt spam graphic

(IDG) -- Answering a tide of complaints from Netizens, Yahoo has filed a lawsuit against a Roseville, California, business that allegedly forged e-mail addresses on its spam.

The suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, accuses World Wide Network Marketing of "deceptive e-mail practices" that violate 12 federal laws. Yahoo claims trademark infringement, breach of contract, computer fraud, and business code violations stemming from tens of thousands of unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam, that the lawsuit says was first sent in August 1998.

Complaints by the thousands

The spam messages contained solicitations by World Wide Network Marketing to buy a "Y2K Report" over the Internet and submit Web sites to other search engines. Yahoo's lawsuit accuses the company of sending the spam -- with a forged return e-mail address in each message -- from systems operated by other Internet service providers.

The lawsuit also says Yahoo received more than 158,000 misdirected e-mail messages as a result, leading the company to believe the actual number of spam messages sent was far greater. Yahoo claims the spam led to more than 12,500 complaints by Internet users who thought the spam originated at Yahoo itself.
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"The essence of this suit is that people have been receiving messages in their e-mail accounts with a sender address," says Lisa Pollock, a senior producer for Yahoo Mail. "World Wide Network Marketing is using our name and reputation to facilitate their operations, and we find that unacceptable. It's in violation of our terms of service, and therefore we are taking action."

Abusing reputation, not servers

Portals and ISPs have fought spam with mixed success. America Online won a 1997 suit that prevented Over the Air Equipment, which offers striptease shows on the Internet, from soliciting AOL members. But the defendant in that suit was accused of using AOL's equipment to send the spam.

Yahoo's legal complaint alleges that World Wide Network Marketing "employed a shifting combination of random user names from which to transmit its promotional messages." This left "Yahoo -- innocent of any responsibility and powerless to prevent the conduct -- to bear the costs and consequences of [World Wide Network Marketing's] actions," according to the suit.

Yahoo uses special software to prevent most spam from being sent through its e-mail system. But in this case, the spam company sent the e-mail through other companies' systems to defeat the software, according to the suit.

As a result of the massive mailings, Yahoo claims, some mail system administrators (trying to mitigate the volumes of junk e-mail) blocked all mail containing a return address. Yahoo claims the spam harmed its business because administrators blocked e-mail of legitimate Yahoo users and eroded Yahoo's goodwill.

"While spamming costs a lot of money, this suit is about more than just money. It's about protecting the Yahoo brand name and protecting the user experience," says Jon Sobel, senior corporate counsel for Yahoo.

The spam resulted in "a significant drain on Yahoo's resources," according to the suit. "Yahoo personnel spend hours daily sorting and responding to complaints [about the spam]." The company asks for legal relief that prevents World Wide Network Marketing from sending more spam under Yahoo's name, before it causes "irreparable harm to Yahoo."

Christian McIntosh contributed to this report.

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