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Getting serious about the war on spam

With a stiff jail term, Jeremy Jaynes becomes the new face of the intensifying battle over America's electronic inboxes.

From the outside, it was just another middle-class tract house with a fountain in the front yard. Inside, it was anything but homey. Instead of family pictures on the mantle, computer servers were stacked in closets, 12 high-speed wires snaked into the house, and monitors were stacked on top of one another.

Welcome to Exhibit A in the nation's intensifying fight against spam.

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From here, Jeremy Jaynes, a Raleigh businessman who rose to No. 8 on a list of "spam kingpins," broke the nation's toughest spam law by churning out more than 100,000 unsolicited e-mails a month. In fact, he was moving closer to 10 million a day. He was sentenced late last week in Leesburg, Va., to the stiffest penalty ever given to a spammer: Nine years in a state prison.

'They're no longer ghosts'

In part, it underscores Americans' changing attitudes about the sanctity of the inbox. And even as the unsolicited e-mail flows on, experts say the case sends a potent message to would-be Internet solicitors: We know where you live.

"If there's ever going to be a deterrent effect, it's not in the potential for [a long] jail sentence, but the fact that spammers can in fact be found, that they're no longer ghosts," says Anne Mitchell, director of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy in San Jose, Calif.

Still, the junk keeps coming. In 2001, only 8 percent of e-mail was junk; today, that number hovers near 75 percent, and could jump to 95 percent, thanks to new methods where "spam gangs" hijack servers to churn out huge amounts of e-mail at one time.

The consequences are dramatic. One study from Nucleus Research, a technology-research company in Wellesley, Mass., figures companies lose around $1,934 per year per employee on spam. Even David Oblon, Jaynes's lawyer, admits his firm had to hire an outside company to sift through the thousands of daily spam messages.

A change in public attitudes

Still, new spam-sifting programs, a slew of civil lawsuits, and antispam activists are having an impact - if not on the volume of spam, on the stakes.

Michigan and Utah, for instance, will launch statewide registries this summer that put children on "Do not spam" lists; a similar proposal is on the table in Illinois.

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And attitudes toward the Internet are changing, as revealed by a new Pew Internet and American Life Project study that finds that fewer Americans today are suspicious of the Internet because of spam than a year ago. One reason: fewer pornographic messages. Though critics say the federal CAN-SPAM law, signed into effect on January 1, 2004, simply legitimized the practice by regulating it, the law has helped dramatically curb the number of pornographic messages being sent.

Spam filters, which have become a competitive edge for the big Internet- service providers, are vacuuming up a large chunk of unwanted ads. Marketers, too, have grown more concerned about a consumer backlash.

"There's been a huge paradigm shift in the direct-marketing community when they finally got that there was a real spam problem, and that if they didn't police themselves, their own business model would just go away," says Ms. Mitchell.

The loss of anonymity - and innocence

At the same time, anonymity seems a little harder to maintain as spammers appear in handcuffs on the evening news - or, like Jaynes, in squinty-eyed mug shots.

In Raleigh, he was just another young businessman riding a rising tide of technology investments. Millions knew him - though they didn't know it - because they'd seen his his web alias, Gaven Stubberfield, in their inbox.

A former restaurateur and direct mailer, he earned $750,000 a month as a spam magnate. His lawyer insists his services were legitimate - and claims that the government broke interstate commerce agreements and trampled on his First Amendment rights to speak freely.

The judge in the case allowed Jaynes to stay out of jail until the appeals courts can sift through the case. One caveat: Jaynes has to go back to using paper and stamps if he wants to write a note to someone.

"Without warning or a cease and desist letter, the government swept in and wanted to make a statement," says Oblon. "This prosecution is going to have no effect on email advertising around the world."

Much of the focus is on the Virginia case, because the state claimed jurisdiction based on the fact that more than half of all Internet commerce flows through servers in the Old Dominion. Florida just filed a case against a spam house registered with 350 domains and 75 websites hawking cigarettes and pharmaceuticals. The two men were caught by a Microsoft "trap" set up to identify and isolate spam messages.

Earlier this year, Microsoft sued 213 alleged spammers, many of them anonymous "John Does," in 97 separate lawsuits - all while a growing number of spammers are getting in touch with their lawyers.

Oblon says the Jaynes case is about a loss of innocence - with plenty of blame to go around.

"There was a time, when e-mail first started being used, that there shouldn't be any commercial activity, that it was all about exchanging ideas, and let's all smell the roses," says Oblon. "Now it's all commercial."