Online Service Blocks 'Junk' E-Mail Aimed at Subscribers
By PETER H. LEWIS
<Picture: R>esponding to a torrent of complaints from subscribers who
say electronic junk mail is clogging their computer in-boxes, America
Online took the unusual step Wednesday of blocking all incoming
messages from five Internet sites that it said were responsible for
sending millions of unsolicited commercial messages over computer
networks each week.
David Phillips, associate general counsel for America Online, said the
five Internet sites -- three of which are associated with a marketing
company in Philadelphia called Cyber Promotions Inc. -- were
responsible for sending as many as 700,000 unsolicited commercial
messages each day to the private electronic mailboxes of more than a
million America Online subscribers.
"We are worried that the quality of the user experience is
deteriorating as a result of these junk e-mailings," Phillips said.
While the other two big on-line providers, the Compuserve Corp. and
Prodigy Inc., have quietly taken comparable steps in the past, America
Online's announcement of a crackdown on junk e-mail is the most
sweeping and public acknowledgment yet of a problem that has affected
all commercial on-line information services -- and the Internet itself
-- since 1994, when millions of consumers began using the global
computer network, and large numbers of commercial users went on line
to pursue them.
Known in Internet argot as "spamming," the practice of sending
unsolicited advertisements and solicitations over computer networks is
roughly analogous to plastering promotional fliers on automobile
windshields in parking lots. It is the technological heir to bulk
marketing, including postal mail, boiler-room phone operations and
But while earlier episodes of Internet spamming have been met with the
on-line world's version of vigilante justice -- sometimes including
blacklisting, angry e-mail counterattacks known as "flaming" or even
software e-mail bombs that clog the senders' systems -- the emergence
of the Internet as a potentially lucrative marketing vehicle has moved
the battles into the courts.
America Online said it had been asking Cyber Promotions for several
months to stop its bulk mailings and had begun returning hundreds of
thousands of undeliverable messages to Cyber Promotions' Internet
service providers. In some cases, the service providers dropped Cyber
Promotions as a customer.
In response, Cyber Promotions sued America Online, saying that the
world's largest commercial on-line service had interfered in its
business. Just last Friday, Cyber Promotions sought to stave off
America Online's blockade by seeking a preliminary injunction in
Federal District Court in Philadelphia. The court has not responded.
Cyber Promotions' messages are sent on behalf of hundreds of small
businesses that pay Cyber Promotions to send out bulk e-mail over
Sanford Wallace, president of Cyber Promotions, accused America Online
Wednesday of censorship and hypocrisy, citing America Online's
practice of sending unsolicited commercial pitches to its own
subscribers. When subscribers log on to America Online, they
invariably get one or more marketing pitches from the network
operator, promoting special rate plans, on-line guidebooks and other
"Maybe one of the reasons for their action is that AOL sees us as a
competitive threat," Wallace said. "Unlike the pop-up screens that AOL
forces all its members to see before they can get into their accounts,
we're a little more responsible in our position."
Phillips of America Online rejected the argument, calling it "an
apples-and-oranges comparison." He said, however, that America Online
would soon provide members with software that would enable them to
block annoying solicitations, whether they come from America Online or
any other source.
Until then, Phillips conceded Wednesday, America Online's plan to
block all messages originating from the five Internet addresses, or
domains, was not perfect -- and would not block unsolicited e-mail
from other addresses that America Online has not yet taken action
It is relatively simple and inexpensive for companies to open new
Internet domains, which would allow them to circumvent most blocking
mechanisms. Moreover, any blocking of a domain would indiscriminately
block any personal or other noncommercial messages that might come
from that domain.
But the scope of the spamming problem has become so severe that
radical steps were required, Phillips said. For example, he said, one
of the banned domains, netfree.com, distributes software that allows
users to automatically "harvest" user names from America Online for
the purpose of setting up bulk e-mail lists.
Another of the banned domains, honeys.com, sent mass e-mailings to
America Online users, advertising a service that allows subscribers to
see live video images of Las Vegas strippers over the network.
The other domains related to Cyber Promotions affected by the blockade
are cyberpromo.com, answerme.com and servint.com.
Reed Caldwell, the system administrator for Servint Inc. of McLean,
Va., one of the five banned Internet domains and the company that
provides Internet access for Cyber Promotions, said he was never
contacted by America Online before it blocked all messages to and from
his service Wednesday. Caldwell said Servint itself had never sent
unsolicited e-mail, and said it was not his company's policy to
interfere in the legal activities of his clients.
Caldwell said he would have been willing to discuss the issue with
America Online, which is nearby in Dulles, Va. "But if their
definition of dealing with it is for us to cancel any of our clients
they don't like, we can't do that," he said.
America Online said it blocked the sites only after repeated requests
to stop the mass mailings were refused or ignored by the operators of
the five sites.