If you have an e-mail account you will know how irritating spam, or junk mail, can be. But now big US firms are taking action against some of the biggest spammers. But will it make a difference?
Q: Who is taking action against spammers?
Spammers could soon be in court
A: AOL, Microsoft, Earthlink and Yahoo. Between them they represent tens of millions of e-mail users and already stop hundreds of millions of junk mail messages every day.
Now they are using a new US law to stop the spammers operating rather than just junk their messages. The Can-Spam Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) was passed in late 2003 and came into force in January this year. It allows spammers to be imprisoned and it outlaws many of the tactics spammers use to hide their tracks and avoid censure.
Only net service firms and governments can use the Can-Spam Act to tackle spammers.
Q: How have the spammers broken this law?
A: The four firms filing the lawsuits allege that the spammers have used open proxies to send spam through innocent third-parties and used false "from" e-mail addresses.
Junk mail is familiar to all e-mail users
It is also claimed that many spammers messages were sent without physical addresses and without an unsubscribe option.
All of these tactics were made illegal under the Can-Spam Act.
Q: How many people are being sued?
A: At least 118. It is complicated because of the way that the lawsuits have been filed.
Of the six lawsuits, AOL and Microsoft have filed two each and Earthlink and Yahoo have filed just one each.
According to legal documents, one AOL lawsuit is against 40 unnamed spammers it only calls "John Does". Yahoo is suing 50 John Does and Microsoft is suing at least 25 of them. In addition are three lawsuits against specific individuals and their associates.
The Can-Spam Act allows legal action to be taken against unnamed defendants and the plaintiffs are confident they will know who the spammers are by the time the cases get to court.
Q: So am I going to get less spam now?
A: Probably not.
It is estimated that most of the spam you receive is produced by about 200 organisations. Given that the lawsuits name only a small proportion of these even if all the spammers are shut down and jailed there are still a lot of people out there to pick up the slack.
Spam got the name because of a Monty Python sketch
Many spammers operate on a quasi-criminal basis and work very hard to hide their identity. Laws like Can-Spam are unlikely to deter them.
There are already reports that the Can-Spam Act making spammers move off-shore. While the Can-Spam Act allows them to be pursued, legal action gets increasingly difficult once it moves off mainland America.
Currently US spammers are the biggest senders of junk mail according to security firm Sophos. The legal action may mean the junk mail starts to come from other countries.
Q: What else is being done to combat spam?
A: Lots. Some e-mail providers are starting to filter spam before it reaches end users. Tools are starting to appear in e-mail packages that allow people to stop spam and there are lots of technical measures available to spot and block junk mail.
TOP SPAM NATIONS
United States - 56.74%
Canada - 6.8%
China & Hong Kong - 6.24%
South Korea - 5.77%
Netherlands - 2.13%
Brazil - 2%
Germany - 1.83%
France - 1.5%
UK - 1.31%
Australia - 1.21%
Mexico - 1.19%
Spain - 1.05%
Now firms are talking about making changes to e-mail software to ensure that messages come from the net domains they say they do. Spammers typically use fake addresses and net domains to hide the origins of messages.
But the reaction from the spammers to these measures has been to increase the number of messages they send out. They reason that, if a smaller percentage of messages are getting through, they need to send out more to make sure that enough do get seen.
The spam/anti-spam world is starting to resemble the arms war that exists between virus writers and anti-virus firms. Occasionally one will get ahead but the problem is here to stay.