Microsoft to fight spam with subpoenas

Microsoft Corp. is looking to burn spammers targeting users of its Hotmail e-mail service with a lawsuit filed in a California federal court last week.

The suit goes after unnamed defendants accused of harvesting e-mail addresses from its Hotmail servers with the intention of spamming subscribers. The “John Doe” suit allows the company to conduct discovery in the case, and issue subpoenas as part of the investigative process of the trial, a Microsoft representative said Wednesday.

In its complaint, Microsoft said that it believes it has tracked down the IP address used by a harvester, but that the address is registered to an ISP (Internet service provider) known as Neutelligent Inc. and it is unclear to whom the ISP has assigned the IP address.

The company claimed that beginning in or about September of 2002, the harvesters accessed Microsoft’s computers and servers in Mountain View, California, using “an extractor or database searching software program or similar program” to obtain customers’ e-mail addresses.

“Microsoft’s customer lists have been taken and misused, and Microsoft’s reputation, goodwill and relationships with its customers have suffered,” the complaint states.

The software giant is asking for general, special and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and restraining orders against the defendants, as well as a disgorgement of the profits made from the pilfered addresses.

The complaint alleges that the harvesters’ actions violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, California Uniform Trade Secrets Act and California Penal Code.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose last Thursday, represents the software giant’s latest volley against spammers, which it is targeting through both the courtroom and U.S. Congress.

Indeed, a representative for the company said Wednesday that more suits against spammers were set to be filed in California later this week. However, company representatives declined to comment further on the upcoming cases.

Last week, the Redmond, Wash., company also turned up the fire under legislators, asking them to pass laws that would make it illegal for spammers to harvest e-mail addresses.

In an essay posted on its site last Wednesday, the company said that it is intensifying its efforts to cooperate with other ISPs and working with the government to enforce current laws against spam, but that “new, strong laws are needed.”

Microsoft’s push to crack down on spammers comes as ISPs are increasingly hearing calls from customers to help them cut back on the annoying, unsolicited e-mail. Several e-mail providers, including Microsoft, have introduced new spam-fighting tools to their services in recent months, but the exponential growth of spam has made providers turn to legislative support to complement their technological measures.

Beyond soothing customer ire, fighting spam has also become a central issue for ISPs due to cost and bandwidth implications. Microsoft acknowledged these concerns in its complaint, stating that harvesting consumes resources on mail servers and takes up “finite” connections.

The company added that it has been required to hire additional staff and devote substantial time and resources to address customer complaints and investigate harvesting and spamming activities.