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Porn Spam Causing Litigation Fears

By Allen Bernard

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While most executives are aware spam is annoying, uses up valuable network resources and wastes employee's time, some are adding potential litigation to their list of concerns.

To date no lawsuits have been brought against companies for not having email filtering or anti-spam technology in place, but it probably is just a matter of time before it happens, said Francois LaVaste, vice president of marketing at anti-spam vendor Brightmail.

"I know it's in the back of the mind of HR managers and executives of companies when they pick up the phone and call their IT manager and say do something about this problem," he said.

According to Brightmail, in August only about 20% of unsolicited bulk email (Brightmail's official definition of spam) was adult-oriented in nature. But it seems like much more because naked bodies have an impact far exceeding the actual volume of email, said LaVaste.

"Adult content in August was 12% of the total number of messages," he said. "Only 12%. But at the same time everybody, when they talk about spam, they talk about adult content because the impact of that 12% is much bigger than the share it represents as far as the number of messages."

It may also seem like much more because, overall, spam has increased dramatically in the past eight months, said LaVaste. Because of this, the number of porn emails have increased both as an percentage of the total volume and in terms of real numbers. Over the past six months, the total volume of pornographic junk emails increased to 12% from 8%, according to Brightmail numbers.

Numbers supplied by MessageLabs, a managed email security provider, indicate a market increase as well. In 2002, the company tracked a pornographic email image every two minutes. To date in 2003, the company tracked a porn email image every 30 seconds, a 75% increase. In total, MessageLabs has found that more than 50% of all corporate email today consists of spam of one type or another.

Although not as racy as porn, religious and racially motivated spam is also catching the attention of CIOs, said Ryan McGee, Network Associates' director of product marketing, as potentially offensive spam that could potentially spark controversy and potential litigation.

Still, fully 25% of the enterprise clients McGee speaks with cite potential litigation arising from porn spam as the No. 1 reason they are interested in an email filtering system of one type or another.

While no one has heard of any lawsuits arising from this issue yet, they all agree that once a single suit hits the court system, every CIO will be calling their nearest anti-spam vendor.

"There's such a high sensitivity to legal liability that any mention of a court case along these lines will have people running for the exits," said McGee. "I fully anticipate that if and when a court case develops this will be a major concern for a lot of companies."