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Internet fight brewing over ‘spam’

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CHICAGO — Peter Kaldis, a systems support manager for Pixar Animation Studios in Richmond, Calif., estimates he gets about 100 e-mails per day, some 25 percent of which are junk e-mails offering everything from get-rich-quick schemes to entry to pornographic Web sites and sham cures for cancer.

The companywide infestation of "spam," or unsolicited e-mail, eats up time, resources and disk space, Kaldis said.

Kaldis clearly is not alone. The problem plagues thousands, if not millions, of Internet users and has spawned companies and nonprofit groups whose sole purpose is to help Internet service providers block spam.

Now some online marketers are fighting back, saying anti-spamming groups are violating basic tenets of free speech and curtailing their ability to conduct business. In their zeal to block junk e-mail, they also filter out legitimate messages and marketing pitches, bulk online marketers argue.

Yesmail.com, a Chicago-based online marketer, has filed suit against the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS), a nonprofit California company established to fight e-mail abuse. Yesmail won a temporary restraining order preventing MAPS from placing Yesmail on its list of spammers. The lawsuit and the order were suspended Tuesday after the two sides agreed to attempt to negotiate a settlement.

"Yesmail has always been out in front in the industry as far as permission-based" e-mail marketing, said Yesmail chief operating officer Mark Boyce. "I think MAPS has a better understanding that we're really not the bad guys."

MAPS insists on the double opt-in procedure for e-mail marketing, whereby consumers' e-mail addresses can't be given to marketers unless they sign up and then later confirm their intention via e-mail.

Yesmail says it prefers a less stringent method, where a consumer signs up and then receives a confirmation e-mail with the option to unsubscribe. The consumer is not required to send back a confirmation. Yesmail has a database of more than 12 million individuals and helps companies create e-mail marketing campaigns and target consumers who have expressed interest in specific areas or products.

MAPS co-founder Paul Vixie said he hopes to reach an agreement, but he doesn't plan on compromising.

"Yesmail is going to have to do everything everyone else has to do," Vixie said.

Yesmail and other online marketers have said they have no problem with reasonable anti-spamming activities but are troubled by MAPS' tactics. MAPS' Realtime Blackhole List of alleged spammers is subscribed to by Internet service providers, corporations and individuals, and lets them know the sources of junk e-mail so they can be blocked.

Vixie admitted his is a "a very in-your-face kind of effort.

"Yes, we have a lot of detractors who say we go too far," he said. "But ultimately the goal is to fix it where there are no spam-friendly networks."

A survey conducted last year by the Gartner Group research firm found that 91 percent of e-mail users receive spam at least once a week, and most of them favor either regulating spam or banning it altogether.

The nation's largest Internet provider, America Online Inc., which has filed lawsuits against more than 40 individuals and companies in an effort to block spam, says it goes after marketers if it receives complaints from customers.

AOL, which does not accept bulk unsolicited e-mail, has been awarded "substantial" damages, company spokesman Rich D'Amato said. Judges have also seen fit to enter injunctions against individuals and companies preventing them from spamming in the future, he added.

"Our members have been very clear. They don't like junk e-mail, they don't want junk e-mail and they want us to do something about it," D'Amato said. "We've certainly put a couple of junk e-mailers out of business, and that's been pretty much our goal."

On the Net: MAPS is at www.mail-abuse.org; www.yesmail.com; www.gartnerweb.com