Amir Gans didn't seem particularly relaxed yesterday, but he didn't look too nervous either. The 30-year-old entrepreneur who is responsible for sending more than 50 percent of the unsolicited advertising e-mail messages in Israel (or "junk mail" as its detractors call it) seemed eager for a fight. Since yesterday morning, when Microsoft Israel filed a NIS 2.5 million lawsuit against him for the damage it claims his activity caused, Gans dropped his regular affairs and went into media attack mode.
Gans is no stranger to lawsuits. Last July the Internet service provider Golden Lines sued him for NIS 250,000, and two months ago a no-damages suit was filed against him and a client of his in the Tel Aviv District Court. The suit charges that on May 10, 2004, Gans' company, New Approach, launched "a widespread e-mail attack" using Golden Lines servers, sending 510,000 messages over 18 hours. As a result of the "attack," Golden Lines charges, the ISP's servers were blacklisted by organizations that combat junk mail. Consequently, the e-mail accounts of its legitimate subscribers were blocked, the servers slowed down, and Golden Lines' reputation was damaged.
That Gans is the first Israeli to be sued by Microsoft in Israel is not a random occurence. His remarkable readiness to admit to and boast of his spammer exploits made him a highly sought-after invitee in the past year to every academic conference on matters such as Internet privacy or "the junk mail problem." Gans was even invited by the Knesset Science Committee member, MK Michael Eitan, regularly to attend meetings of the Knesset Internet Committee that will be dealing with regulation of direct mailing over the Internet.
"We are prepared to take this to the limit and win," says Shai-Li Spiegelman, a lawyer for Microsoft Israel. "The decision to sue him first is a calculated decision because he's famous. We want to deter. This is only one action that we're taking, and we'll continue to sue other junk mail senders for deterrence. The suit against Gans is part of Microsoft's global fight against the junk mail phenomenon. To date, Microsoft participated in more than 120 suits worldwide against spammers, 89 of them in the United States, in which damages totaling some $306 million were awarded against the junk mail senders," she said.
The latest data from independent research firms shows that junk mail accounted for 60 to 80 percent of all e-mail traffic in the past year.
In the suit filed yesterday at the Tel Aviv District Court, Microsoft Israel and MSN charge that New Approach not only sent unsolicited advertising messages to its clients, but also that "in several cases messages were disguised as having come from Hotmail Israel to trick recipients into thinking it was mail from a secure source."
Microsoft wants the court to order Gans to hand over the details regarding the number of e-mail messages New Approach sent to Hotmail subscribers, while masquerading as Hotmail subscribers or affiliated with the Hotmail service, and to compensate it at $5 per message for damage to its reputation and unauthorized use of the infrastructure it operates. That works out to $50 million for the 10 million messages Microsoft believes were sent, but the suit is asking for just NIS 2.5 million from Gans because of "the chances of collecting from the defendant."
Gans responded by filing a police complaint against Microsoft alleging threats. Afterward he took to declaring whenever given a chance that "New Approach and its head don't get worked up over empty suits filed by our business rivals, even if it's Microsoft - a body whose aggressive and bullying tactics are well known. New Approach will continue advertising to current clients and new clients. All of the advertising we perform is in accordance with the law. I did not send messages through Hotmail and did not masquerade as Hotmail. In my view, the lawsuit was filed on the grounds that New Approach is taking business competitors away from the MSN service." To bolster his claim, Gans displays an official price quote he received from MSN Israel in which it offers outside advertisers to send e-mail messages to active Hotmail subscribers for a fee.
"We don't deny the fact that MSN enables mail to be sent to its customers," attorney Spiegelman says in response, "but there is a difference. We ask the account holder for permission to send mail to him, in contrast to what Mr. Gans does, but we also do this on our systems and our infrastructure. Gans does it on the infrastructure of others and at their expense."
Gans said he obtains e-mail addresses (in the millions) by two main methods: buying mailing lists or scanning the Internet with special software and collecting addresses found openly on the Net (at Web sites, forums, chat rooms, etc).
The Knesset Legislative Affairs Committee recently approved preliminary readings of two bills designed to limit the junk mail clogging Israeli e-mail boxes. Both bills, sponsored by MKs Reshef Chayne (Shinui) and Roman Bronfman (Yahad), envision a database of addresses of surfers who are not interested in receiving "unsolicited approaches" by e-mail. Advertisers would be obligated to verify that a surfer is not listed, and if they break the law, they will have to compensate the recipient NIS 1,290 per unwanted message.
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