A jury at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt will decide as soon as Thursday whether Wagner, 48, is a bona fide Internet service provider battling alleged spammers who clog his in-boxes with offers for everything from coffee to appliances. Wagner’s detractors say he’s taking advantage of the law, intentionally seeking out spam in order to sue for $1,000 for each piece of deceptive e-mail.
He’s already taken in more than $1 million from spammers.
Legal experts think that it’s one of the first jury trials in a federal civil case brought by a private citizen and not the government, and it has implications for how the nation’s patchwork of anti-spam laws are used in court.
Eric Sinrod, a San Francisco lawyer who focuses on Internet issues, said these cases are unusual because it is difficult to ferret out who is initiating the spam and because e-mail filters have gotten better at blocking unsolicited commercial messages.
“Anti-spam laws can be relatively harsh if you can prove actual violations,” Sinrod said. “On the other hand, if it looks like there is some sort of scheme, where they are trying to manufacture a lawsuit, hopefully a jury in such a case would see through that.”
Wagner, a graduate of Georgetown University with a master’s degree from MIT, testified last week that he has a penchant for “assembling fast machines.” His lead attorney described him as a “bit of computer geek,” and he spoke so quickly and in such highly technical terms on the witness stand that U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte repeatedly told him to slow down.
Wagner started setting up specialized computers at his parents’ home and created Beyond Systems Inc. in 1996, in part to run tests for his technology consulting business. He created e-mail addresses for friends and family, hosted community e-mail groups and helped neighborhood nonprofit groups use the Internet.
Wagner has testified that he has had just two-dozen paying clients in the past decade, including his father and his housemates on R Street in Northwest.
But Wagner’s e-mail in-boxes have amassed a huge collection of unsolicited junk mail that he has used to successfully sue spammers in a series of cases for “litigation proceeds” of $1 million between 2005 and 2011, according to his statements in preparation for trial.
“There’s an intellectual curiosity and an anger that it’s going unpunished,” one of his attorneys, Mike Rothman, said of the spam. “These are public-interest lawsuits to find out where all this garbage is coming from.”
In Wagner’s complaint, he identifies hundreds of e-mail solicitations from the coffee company Gevalia, which he says were sent by a single spammer under multiple domain names “to mask the true identity of the senders, and to prevent complaining parties from contacting them.”