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War on e-mail spam ratchets up in courts, legislatures

In-box junk mail: Is it free speech, or a threat to viability of the Internet?

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Log on in the morning, and bam! There it is: spam – the bane of the electronic age, dozens of unsolicited commercial pitches for everything from "free" vacations to cheap Viagra cluttering up your in-box and fueling frustration.

That's why when the San Francisco law firm Morrison & Foerster announced it was suing a company that sends out unsolicited commercial e-mail, their own e-mail in-boxes filled up with unsolicited messages of a different kind: "Thank you!" and "Go get 'em!" from ordinary people.

Although this lawsuit is probably the largest of its kind, dozens of others are wending their way through courts in 20 states that have some kind of antispam legislation. It's part of a larger effort to control the proliferation of unsolicited e-mail, including a federal crackdown on fraudulent spammers, a push for a new federal antispam law, and the development of more sophisticated blocking technology.

Internet experts contend that spam costs billions of dollars a year by consuming valuable space on commercial computer servers and wasted employee time. Some argue that the volume and degrading nature of much spam has done immeasurable harm to the Internet's viability as a new mode of commerce.

Harvard fellow and Internet expert Jason Catlett contends the failure to control spam amounts to "the greatest economic tragedy of the Internet age."

"Millions of unwanted e-mail solicitations are sent each day, vexing hundreds of millions of people who feel unable to stop it," he says. "This reduces participation in online commerce and erodes the considerable benefits that responsible e-mail marketing offers to consumers and businesses."

Those who send bulk e-mails contend they're exercising their First Amendment rights – and trying to make a living. It's so cheap that even with only a handful of responses to a million pitches, it pays. But that's what the lawsuits aim to change.

The Morrison & Foerster suit is considered groundbreaking because of the size of the players involved. The firm, known as Mofo, is one of the largest and most tech-savvy in the country. Etracks, the company being sued, is a major online marketer that insists it's not a spammer because it sends responsible commercial pitches on the Internet.

But what constitutes spam and what is "responsible" soliciting are the questions the suit aims to sort out.

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