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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four of the nation's largest e-mail providers said on Wednesday they had sued hundreds of online marketers under a new federal law that outlaws the worst kinds of "spam" e-mail.
The lawsuits -- filed by EarthLink Inc. (NasdaqNM:ELNK - news), Microsoft Corp. (NasdaqNM:MSFT - news), Yahoo Inc. (NasdaqNM:YHOO - news) and Time Warner Inc. (NYSE:TWX - news) unit America Online -- mark the first time the law has been tested since it took effect in January.
Six suits were filed in federal courts in California, Georgia, Virginia and Washington state. They claim the defendants obscured their identities and used other deceptive tactics to send out hundreds of millions of pitches for get-rich-quick schemes, pornography and other types of spam.
Company officials said the CAN-SPAM Act, passed last year, makes their fight easier by imposing national standards and increasing penalties to force spammers out of business.
"The lawsuits we file now have some added punch they didn't have before," AOL General Counsel Randall Boe told reporters at a news conference.
Spam accounted for 62 percent of all e-mail in February 2004, up from 50 percent six months earlier, according to anti-spam company Brightmail Inc. Internet providers say the unwanted traffic drives up bandwidth costs and frustrates customers.
The lawsuits filed Tuesday night invoke a wide array of federal and state laws, from trespass to trademark and organized crime statutes. But much of the behavior in question is specifically outlawed by CAN-SPAM.
Defendants falsified return addresses, routed their messages through other computers to cover their tracks, and used misleading subject lines like "important message from AOL," the lawsuits charged.
One group of defendants in Canada sent nearly 100 million messages to Yahoo customers in January alone and resold the e-mail addresses of those who asked to be taken off their mailing list, according to one lawsuit.
Eric Head, Matthew Head and Barry Head of Kitchener, Ontario, also tried to circumvent spam filters by including random, invisible text in each message, the lawsuit alleged.
The defendants could not be reached for comment.
"It's a myth that somehow you can evade the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts by putting a computer offshore," said Microsoft Deputy General Counsel Nancy Anderson. "Most of the individuals involved in spam reside in the United States."
The civil suits filed by the e-mail providers seek unspecified amounts of damages and penalties. Violators could also face jail time under the new law, though government prosecutors have filed no criminal charges yet.
"Every major case we've filed, we've definitely had law-enforcement interest and generally followed up, so I expect something will come out of this as well," said EarthLink Chief Privacy Officer Les Seagraves.
The Federal Trade Commission has several spam cases in the works, a spokeswoman said.
An FBI spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.
One privacy activist noted that Internet providers had ensured that the new law would prevent individual lawsuits, so their own marketing efforts wouldn't get them in hot water.
"Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo all send out vast quantities of e-mail, and they don't want to get sued," said Jason Catlett, president of the Junkbusters Corp. consulting firm. "There could have been thousands of litigants against spammers, not four."
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