Internet users plagued by growing and apparently never ending volumes of unsolicited email commercial offers will be pleased to hear that not all of the anonymous legions that generate this time wasting dross escape unscathed.
 
According to a report from IDG News this week, one of the chief US perpetrators, Robert Soloway, has been sentenced to 47 months in prison, with a ruling that the court hopes sends a message to other online criminals. In addition to the prison term, Soloway will serve three years of probation and must do 200 hours of community service. And the government is to seek a restitution hearing, raising the possibility that he may be compelled to disgorge illegal earnings.
 
Known as the ‘spam king' for the massive volume of uninvited spam his enterprises generated, Soloway pleaded guilty to fraud, spamming and tax evasion after being indicted in May 2007. Following an unusually long sentencing hearing lasting two-and-a-half days, Judge Marsha Pechman handed down her sentence in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle this week.
 
The case attracted media and Internet user interest due to a wide public abhorrence of spam and because only a few such cases have ever been tried. A man named Jeremy Jaynes was sentenced in Virginia earlier this year to nine years in prison for his spam crimes, and Adam Vitale was locked away for just over two years for a recent conviction in New York.
 
The prosecution argued that Soloway should get more prison time than any of the previous spammers, IDG reports.
Prosecutors asking for a sentence of seven to nine years. "None of those cases, not one, comes close to this case in terms of the duration of the maliciousness, the harassment techniques, the high level of spamming activity that we have in this case," said assistant U.S. attorney Kathryn Warma.
 
Compared with other notorious spammers, Soloway deserved some leniency, his attorneys argued. Soloway didn't damage anyone's computer, he didn't send out malicious code, and he never directed people to pornography, as some spammers have done, his lawyer Richard Troberman said.
 
Jaynes, for example, had millions of AOL e-mail addresses that were stolen from the ISP (Internet service provider), and he was earning as much as US$700 000 a month from his activities, Troberman said. By comparison, the government figured conservatively that Soloway earned no more than $700 000 in three years.
 
The prosecution countered this by asserting that the Soloway case was an opportunity for the courts to dissuade online criminals from continuing their disruptive and annoying work.
 
"A disturbing theme we repeatedly saw from the complainant is, why isn't the law being enforced on the Net? Why isn't CAN-SPAM being enforced?" U.S. Attorney Warma said. "This individual has refused to stop his criminal conduct, notwithstanding two separate civil judgments and an injunction by a U.S. federal court judge.
 
"I suggest to you the only effective way to stop Soloway is a long prison sentence during which he'll be incapable of continuing this criminal activity."
 
Soloway had previously lost cases brought against him by Microsoft and by an ISP in Oklahoma, yet continued to spam.
 
Judge Pechman said it was difficult to come up with a sentence for Soloway because there have been so few other spam cases in the courts, and because the legal system doesn't yet have appropriate sentencing guidelines.
 
"This statute really needs a set of guidelines written and tailored to the CAN-SPAM act, tailored to the evolving computer science that allows people to engage in this activity," she said, adding that the current guidelines are not helpful, especially when CAN-SPAM violations are combined with other crimes.
 
The IDG report on the sentencing says that Soloway apologised to the judge and to his family, but the prosecution pointed out that the spammer has apologised for his activities before. After he was investigated in 1999 in California for spamming activities, he told detectives that he was sorry and had learned a lot, Warma said. "He then moved on to another state and immediately engaged in the same behavior," she claimed.
 
Soloway used to boast about his [spamming] techniques on Internet forums, IDG reports, claiming that he would brag that he would never have to pay the millions of dollars the civil courts had ordered him to pay.
 
Soloway told the judge that he didn't have friends and always figured that if he earned a lot of money, people would like him. "The only time people ever talked to me was when I made money or spent it," he said. "It was completely wrong. I'm very embarrassed and ashamed."
 
Microsoft attorney Aaron Kornblum attended the hearing and said he was pleased with the results. "Soloway repeatedly broke the law. He defied a federal judge and he made a lot of money. This sends a strong message," he told IDG News.
 
Soloway was one of the first spammers Microsoft sued when, in 2003, the company decided it was time to try to put a stop to spam using legal means. At the time, Soloway was known as the third-most-prolific spammer in the world, Kornblum said.
 
In related news, another notorious spammer, Eddie Davidson, escaped from his prison camp in Colorado last weekend. He had been serving a 21-month sentence after pleading guilty to spam charges in December.