Madrid - At the risk of breaching Internet civility, Lycos Europe is offering computer-users a weapon against spam-spewing servers: a screen-saver program that automatically hits the offenders with data to slow them down.
About 65 000 people already have signed up for the offensive, called "Make love, not spam" before Tuesday's official launch, the company said. It is urging its 22 million users to download the screensaver, but says anyone with a computer is welcome to it.
The company insists the technique is legal - it says the culprit servers are simply choked a bit, not completely asphyxiated - and dismissed concerns that computers that ping servers blamed for unwanted Internet traffic are further clogging the world's digital pipeline.
The program activates whenever a computer equipped with it goes in to standby mode, and sends so-called HTTP get-requests to what Lycos says are servers known to generate unsolicited emails. When done en masse, this eats up bandwidth, causing the servers to overload and slow down.
The goal, said Lycos Europe spokesperson Kay Oberbeck, is to "show the owners of such spam websites that there is massive interest of thousands of users who are not willing to just give up against more and more spam."
Lycos chooses its targets by reviewing spam monitors such as www.spamcop.com and manually checking blacklisted sites to see if they really do carry products promoted by spam.
But Oberbeck acknowledged the risk of going after a legitimate site that has been hijacked by a spam-spewing site. Is it legal? "Yes. We checked."
Cyberspace activism is not new, said Dorothy Denning, a professor of defence analysis at the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
But in this case, a for-profit company is the driving force. "I guess the interesting question is whether that company might be liable under some law, and would probably be liable, certainly, at least under a lawsuit by the spammers," she said.
And the Lycos screensaver adds more traffic to the Internet even as it tries to clear it of unwanted traffic, and probably has a minor impact on the targeted sites. "Those sites can always just pack up and use another IP address," Denning said. Or they can just buy more bandwidth.