Cyber Promotions, the most notorious junk email company in the world, is claiming the moral high ground over a huge spam plugging a wonder hair tonic. The mailout has plagued more than 3,000,000 Internet users - including thousands of New Zealanders - in recent weeks, and destroyed at least one US Web hosting business.
Mass mailings from firms using Cyber Promotions' resources have become such a plague that one local MP has been approached to devise legisation to stop the same thing happening here.
The source of the spam, Illinois-based Cybergen Health, has been using an email account provided by Cyber Promotions, but the latter company's owner, Sanford Wallace, says he cancelled the account because Cybergen went too far.
Specifically, Wallace claims to have taken exception to Cybergen's warning to Internet users thinking of complaining about its unsolicited mail. Its messages threatened "If we are flamed, we will (a) FLAME YOU 1,000 times as much, (b) email to three million people a questionable item with your email address."
"I think there is a line to draw," says Wallace, who claims his company has sanctioned dozens of bulk emailers for using threats, forging email or refusing to take users off its mailing lists. "We are not in business to intentionally annoy people ... Some people may get annoyed by our messages, but it is not intentional."
But Cybergen President Yuri Rutman is accusing Cyber Promotions of hypocrisy. Cyber Promotions frequently changes its domain names to get around filters set up by online services to block junk email. Concentric Network Corp., a California ISP, sued Cyber Promotions last year for creating havoc by launching spam from its network and America Online has fought Wallace's company in court to establish the right to block the junk email before it reaches users.
Cybergen employed a familiar Cyber Promotions tactic when it began sending its mailings out via Joe's CyberPost, a free Web hosting service. The response from annoyed users was so great that the owner of the service, Joe Doll, shut down Cybergen's page a few weeks ago.
Then, in retaliation, someone at Cybergen forged an even more inflammatory mailing titled "El Cheepo" and made to appear as though it were coming from Joe's domain. The message snidely told users who wanted to be removed by the mailing list: "Sorry, no can do."
Joe's domain (joes.com) and his ISP, Hurricane Electric, were quickly flooded with waves of mail bombs, ping attacks and SYN attacks, as well as angry email and phone calls. Joes.com had to be shut down completely.
"We were getting attacked by so many users, it was ridiculous," says Mike Leber, Hurricane's owner. "The worst thing someone can do to you is spam in your name."
Leber says he has little recourse, however. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was not interested. And Leber doubts Cybergen has enough assets to justify a civil lawsuit. Doll, is still mulling over his options.
IBM was also hit with complaints because the spam originated from one of its public email accounts, and continued to flow even after angry users had traced its source. IBM could not be reached for comment on claims that it took too long to cancel the account.
The recent rash of spam - including other mailouts from companies using Cyber Promotions ISP service - has inevitably provoked calls for action locally. Labour's information technology spokesman, Steve Maharey, has been approached by a constituent who wants him to introduce a member's bill outlawing junk emailing and faxing.
"We're really just looking into it for the moment," says Maharey's excutive secretary Christine Leather. "Action against junk faxing has a precedent in the US, with a law passed in 1991, but there's no similar legislation covering email. We've read up on Cyber Promotions and their action against AOL, but if we were to go ahead with anything we'd need some some documented evidence about the real extent of the problem in New Zealand."
Another Parliamentary staffer, David Farrar of Ministerial Services, has also suggested spam as a suitable subject for the proposed ISP Code of Practice.
"Within New Zealand it would be a workable idea," says Farrar. "If you get chucked off one ISP for breach of Terms of Service, then hopefully no other ISP would touch you. "There may be privacy issues to overcome, but if it is stated in the TOS that you get publicly identified if caught spamming, that should work. I know that very little, if any, spam originates from a NZ based account. But we may want to put in precautions in before it starts happening, not after."
Meanwhile, Cybergen's Rutman says he has fired the employees responsible for the forged mailing. But he says Internet users will have to get used to junk email.
"I don't see what the problem is," he says. "Users can just delete it."
Rutman also claims few users mind the unsolicited mailings. Cybergen sent roughly three million hair tonic messages, but Rutman says his company received only 400 to 500 complaints before Cyber Promotions closed its account.
"It's a minority, and it's going to stay a minority, and every company will be doing this," Rutman said. And he encouraged users to call him at +1 (847) 679-3916. "I'll have them over for cappuccino and pasta."
Rutman also says he is looking for a new ISP.