Why Did EarthLink Drop Charges?

What’s the story behind EarthLink’s decision to drop charges in part of the Alabama Spammer spam case? The Atlanta Business Chronicle yesterday said:

Atlanta-based EarthLink dismissed charges against Alyx Sachs and Albert Ahdoot and said it believes the two were victims of a massive and sophisticated campaign of identity theft and that they were unaware of and had no role in spamming. In January 2005, EarthLink scored a legal victory against the Alabama Spammers.

That must have been quite a campaign to dupe EarthLink, who one assumes are quite good at sorting their wheat from their chaff. The press release itself leaves no doubt that EarthLink feels the two are on the good side of the email marketing fence:

“Sachs and Ahdoot are considered professionals in legitimate internet marketing and recognized leaders in web based advertising,” says their attorney, Paul Sigelman. “Their dismissal is a clean triumph of truth for legitimate Internet ad agencies.”

Earthlink noted that after careful evaluation, it believes Alyx Sachs and Albert Ahdoot are by their own company policies diligent in enforcing maintenance of a spam-free Internet Ad business and prohibit the sending of unsolicited commercial email.

Sachs and her company (I think it was Netglobalmarketing, but the domain has expired) were the subject of a NYT piece in April 2003, and legal threats against Techdirt shortly thereafter after a reader of the site published the duo’s contact details (further discussed on Slashdot).

Ahdoot seems to have been near the top of the SpamHaus list of top (alleged) spammers, but is now nowhere to be found. I can see an interesting tale lurking behind this. How can one be a ‘top spammer’ one day and then the victim of massive identity theft the next?

Who Are The White Knights In The War On Spam?

I know this appallingly cynical of me, but I can’t help worrying about the most recent development in the War On Spam. That, in case you hadn’t heard, is the news of a ‘fighting cooperative’ as Jupiter Research’s Microsoft Monitor puts it, between Microsoft and New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who have together filed lawsuits against alleged spammers Synergy6 and Scott Richter, among others. Spitzer was one of the key players in the government’s five-year antitrust case against Microsoft.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s good that someone’s going after spammers. And they may well have the right guys. Spamhaus has Richter high up on its list of top spammers, and Spitzer described him as the third largest spammer in the world, delivering 250 million spam e-mails per day. And having Microsoft onside definitely has its rewards: As part of a six-month investigation, Microsoft set up honey traps, capturing 8,000 spam mails in one month containing, according to Spitzer, “40,000 false statements.” New York State will seek $500 in damages for each false statement. Microsoft’s lawsuits, filed in Washington State, seek more than $18 million in damages.

But while Jupiter and others focus on the positive aspects of Microsoft’s improving relations with the government, what exactly is Micosoft doing sueing spammers? While they have the technical muscle to help catch the spammer, (and this is not the first time they’ve gone after spammers in the courts, as TechDirt points out), my suspicion is that spammers are being pursued not because they’re a nuisance to us users, but because they’re getting in the way of making the web a marketers’ dream playground.

Spam is hell for the inbox and is giving a bad name to all forms of e-marketing. That’s bad for us, but more importantly it’s bad for big business, as Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith explains: “Deceptive and illegal spam, like the kind we’re attacking today, is overwhelming legitimate e-mail and threatening the promise and potential of the Internet for all of us. We appreciate the attorney general’s leadership on what is arguably the biggest technology menace consumers are facing. Together we are stepping up efforts to help consumers take control of their inboxes again.”

Indeed, it’s telling that Microsoft has, according to the anti-spamming community, been instrumental in watering down anti-spamming legislation which might have done a more thorough job of stopping junk mail. Of course, I’m not defending spam. It’s ugly, and getting worse. And Microsoft are improving their spam filtering: Outlook 2003 has it, and they just upgraded it again yesterday.

But in helping get rid of it we may unwittingly be committing ourselves to a regimented future online, of standards — IDs, Digital Rights Management, microtolls — controlled by the big corporates. Or at the very least, leave the ground free for spam from the mainstream — mainsleaze spam, as California State Senator Debra Bowen put it: “Microsoft doesn’t want to ban spam, it wants to decide what’s ‘legitimate’ or ‘acceptable’ unsolicited commercial advertising so it can turn around and license those e-mail messages and charge those advertisers a fee to wheel their spam into your e-mail inbox without your permission.”

News: A Worm With A Mission

 Further to my posting about SpamCop, it seems that a new virus, actually a worm, is aiming at bringing down SpamCop and some other anti-spam sites. Is it more evidence of collusion between sleazy spammers and spotty virus writers?
 
Sophos reports that W32/Mimail-E is a worm which spreads via email using addresses harvested from the hard drive of the infected computer. It arrives with the subject line : don’t be late!, and the message Will meet tonight as we agreed, because on Wednesday I don’t think I’ll make it, so don’t be late. And yes, by the way here is the file you asked for. It’s all written there. See you. It looks as if it’s sent by someone called John on your domain.
 
The worm will then attempt denial of service attacks — bombarding a specific website with tonnes of digital rubbish — on anti-spam sites such as spews.org , spamhaus.org and spamcop.net.

Update: More On The Spiral of Evil

 Spammers may be using viruses to attack their enemies. Further to my column on how virus writers and spammers may be in cahoots to deliver spam, The Register reports that anti-spam activists have produced fresh evidence that recent assaults — called Distributed Denial of Service attacks, or DDoS, — on their websites have been enabled by the infamous Sobig worm.
 
Two anti-spam services, Monkeys.com and the Compu.Net “block list”, have already closed in the past week.
Spamhaus has been under constant “extremely heavy” DDoS attack since early July, and they believe the attack against his site and others originates from Windows machines infected with the Sobig worm, controlled by spammers over IRC networks.
 
What’s interesting is that, if properly investigated, this may help prove the link between (some) spammers and (some) virus writers. And, of course, get them off the streets and in jail.