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$1bn lawsuit takes novel approach in fighting spam

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A group opposed to spam is taking a novel approach to fighting the scourge by using a mountain of data and a $1bn lawsuit to go after email harvesters who make possible all those penis-enlargement solicitations in the first place.

The complaint, filed by Project Honey Pot on behalf of tens of thousands of members in more than 100 countries, targets those who operate the spiders that crawl endlessly throughout the web in search of email addresses. These harvesters of sorrow then sell the addresses to spammers.

"If you've harvested email addresses or sent spam in the last two years, chances are you're on our radar screen and we're coming after you," Project Honey Pot officials warned on their website.

PHP offers a free software program that allows websites to display email addresses that are different each time a page is accessed. The software records the visitor's IP number and the corresponding unique email address. That allows PHP to know with certainty who harvested Spam sent to a given address. To date, Project Honey Pot says it's identified 15,570 IP addresses used by harvesters.

The suit, filed in federal court in the eastern district of Virginia, names unidentified John Does as defendants. Lawyers plan to use the power of the subpoena to force ISPs to divulge the identities of the individuals who control the IP addresses tracked by PHP.

The suit invokes the CAN-SPAM act, which carries fines of $1 per message or $25,000 per day. It was passed in 2003 to great fanfare but has so far done little to reduce the amount of crap clogging the average person's inbox. (Current estimates are that spam accounts for 80 per cent to 90 per cent of all email sent.) It also invokes a Virginia law targeting spam.

PHP officials say the lawsuit is the first to target harvesters. While CAN-SPAM allows for harvesters to be named, doing so is tough because the burden of proof is too high.

PHP is being represented by Jon Praed of the Internet Law Group, who has successfully represented AOL and Verizon against spammers. From our perch at Vulture Central, we're somewhat skeptical about the lawsuit's chances of success. For one thing, many harvesters are likely outside the reach of US courts, and we also wonder if PHP has legal standing to sue. Of course, we hate spam too, so we certainly wish them the best. ®

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