Will Indictment of Spam King Lead to Less Spam?

Having to let go of a longtime e-mail address can be as painful as letting go of your cell phone number.

So like many Americans, Washington, D.C., publicist Deborah Schwartz was reluctant to let go of her account, even though it was costing more and more of her precious free time.

"I was getting on average in the last month, 200 to 400 [spam] e-mails every day. Spam of all kinds," she told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit.

Schwartz said her Internet service provider told her the spam was clogging her inbox and halting her legitimate e-mail traffic.

"They'd say, 'You're 120 percent over. You're 150 percent over what we can provide. We're going to shut down your e-mail intake,'" she said. "So I'd immediately go in and clean that up. That was especially difficult when I was on the road, seeing clients or whatever.''

Schwartz was one of millions who cheered the indictment Thursday of alleged Seattle "spam king" Robert Alan Soloway on 35 federal counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, e-mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering.

The government accuses Soloway, 27, of using computers known as "zombies" because their owners don't know they have been compromised to spam blast cyberspace with junk mail. Soloway pleaded not guilty Wednesday to all charges.

Experts tell ABC News that the government's indictment of Soloway is noteworthy in that it charged identity theft, which carries more serious penal penalties, instead of the more commonly used anti-fraud laws.

While government and big business said that Soloway was such a driving force that e-mail users nationwide could see a decrease in unwanted mail, other experts and users balked.

And one law professor wondered whether this new prosecutorial precedent could have far-reaching legal consequences.

A Fresh Start

Schwartz said she had a growing spam problem that had to be addressed.

"It became a constraint on everything," she said. "It was very time consuming and probably slowed up work a bit. So I made up my mind on Memorial Day weekend to create a new e-mail address. And I'll use that address, and get rid of the old one, slowly. But I had to notify I'd say 2,300 e-mail sources, e-mail addresses. Some people got in touch. Some have not. I don't know if they're all sending. My own son sent me an e-mail to the wrong address today."

Of course changing your e-mail affects the rest of your personal communication tools, too. "Letterhead, business cards. Everything will have to be changed to show the new e-mail address. So it was a big decision to do it. But I had to. There was just no way I could keep working that way, not with that much spam."

The Criminal Indictment

While Schwartz was rearranging her life and business around her new e-mail address this weekend, the government was preparing to bring one of its most hard-hitting cases ever against a man it said was behind one of the largest junk e-mail companies in the world.

In federal court in Seattle Wednesday, Soloway's court-appointed public defender declined to comment to The Associated Press, and a judge determined that even though four bank accounts had been seized, Soloway could still afford to get his own lawyer, the AP reported. Prosecutor Kathryn Warma reportedly said he had been living in a high-end apartment and driving a Mercedes convertible.

Prosecutors allege in court papers that Soloway advertised on his Web site his ability to send out as many as 20 million e-mails over a two-week period for $495.

In 2005, Microsoft won a $7 million civil judgment against Soloway and an Oklahoma Internet service provider won a $10 million judgment as well, prosecutors said, but Soloway continued his operation.

Lawyers for Microsoft told ABC News they expected to see an overall drop in spam traffic on the Internet because of the Soloway indictment and the message they believe it will send to other spam-mail powerhouses.

"This [prosecution] is particularly exciting because it demonstrates that the government is moving to protect this important medium and resource for personal and business communication," senior Microsoft attorney Aaron Kornblum told ABC News.

Kornblum added that "criminal enforcement is absolutely essential to drive home the message to those more serious spammers. … Those that are defiant and won't obey the law, that enforcers can reach them and that there are serious consequences for sending illegal mail."

'Dent' in Spam Traffic?

While Microsoft may think that with Soloway out of commission, spam will be reduced, others are not convinced. The Spamhaus Project, an international anti-spam organization, counted Soloway among its Top 10 worst spammers but recently he has been bested by more prolific spammers from Russia, the group told the AP.

"Most of the Russian gangs seem to have a lot more freshly hijacked computers and are able to deliver much more spam into people's inboxes," Vincent Hanna, an investigator for Spamhaus, told the wire service.

'Symbolic' Victory

To Chris Hoofnagle, senior staff attorney to the Samuelson Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of Southern California at Berkeley, the case marks a significant new direction for federal prosecution of spammers.

"In the past e-mail spam cases have been prosecuted under a specific anti-fraud law, but generally the government has not used identity theft statutes to prosecute spammers," he told ABC News.

"There was a case in 2003 where a spammer was charged with identity theft because he was actually stealing the identity of individuals in order to get accounts and then send spam from those accounts," he said. "This case is different because the spammer is alleged to have simply forged — used other people's e-mail addresses as his own in order to send out spam."

But he said he also felt the case could set a "dangerous" precedent.

"This case should send significant shock waves to anyone who is sending spam," he said. "It's one thing is to be charged with fraud and to pay off … some kind of civil penalty for violating a law. It is quite another to wind up in jail for your business practices. So in a way this sets up a bit of a dangerous precedent."

He continued: "We should be asking ourselves whether it makes sense to be using criminal law, a criminal part of the code, to be putting people in jail for a form of advertising. So many of us have very strong beliefs about spam — I don't like spam either — but we should think carefully about whether we want to use this sledgehammer to go after someone who is merely sending out e-mail."

"In the short term, the effect it's going to have is more symbolic more than anything else," said John Levine, co-author of "Fighting Spam for Dummies," told the AP.

According to AP reports from the morning after Soloway's arrest, "Junk e-mail continued to land in mailboxes around the world Thursday, despite the arrest a day earlier of a man described as one of the world's most prolific spammers."

Elizabeth Tribolet produced this piece for Thursday's "World News With Charles Gibson" with Ellen Davis and Lauren Pearle. Chris Francescani contributed to this report.