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Microsoft Files 15 Lawsuits on Spam, AOL, Earthlink, Yahoo Also File Suits

By Saul Hansell

THE NEW YORK TIMES -- WASHINGTON

Microsoft, the world’s largest provider of e-mail accounts, filed lawsuits on Tuesday against 15 groups of individuals and companies that it says collectively sent its clients more than 2 billion unwanted e-mail messages.

Unwanted e-mail, commonly called spam, has been a fast growing problem for all e-mail users. And Microsoft’s Hotmail service, with 140 million users, has been a fat target for spammers. The company estimates that more than 80 percent of the more than 2.5 billion e-mail messages sent each day to Hotmail users are spam. It now blocks most of those spam messages.

All of the large Internet providers, including America Online, Earthlink and Yahoo, have started filing lawsuits against e-mailers they claim are sending spam. Microsoft’s suits represent the largest number filed at one time, and reflect Microsoft’s willingness to devote some of its considerable resources to fighting spam. It promised that there are more such actions to come.

“We at Microsoft are ramping up our efforts to combat spam,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, at a news conference on Tuesday.

But many experts say that these suits do little to prevent spam.

“At the end of the day, this is a drop in the bucket,” said Ray Everett-Church, the chief privacy officer, of the ePrivacyGroup, a consulting company. He said that the several dozen suits against spammers so far have had no noticeable effect deterring other spammers.

“Right now the big service providers see spam as a point of differentiation,” Everett-Church said. “And these suits are much more of a marketing campaign than an anti-spam campaign.”

Smith of Microsoft, however, argued that these lawsuits were an important part of a multipronged approach to fighting spam. In addition to lawsuits, Microsoft has introduced software to filter out spam for its MSN internet access service and will include similar software in the next release of its Outlook e-mail program.

Twelve of the suits filed on Tuesday were in state court in Washington state. They brought claims under both the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and a Washington state anti-spam law. One suit was filed in California state court, and two filed were in the United Kingdom. The defendants include many businesses involved in e-mail marketing.

In some cases, Microsoft was not able to identify the sender of the spam. It filed several suits against unnamed John Doe defendants. That tactic allows it to use subpoenas and other techniques to try to identify the spammers.