NEW YORK – A 25-year-old former America Online (TWX) employee who admitted he became a cyberspace "outlaw" when he sold all 92 million screen names and e-mail addresses to spammers was sentenced Wednesday to a year and three months in prison.
"I know I've done something very wrong," the soft-spoken and teary eyed Jason Smathers (search) told U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein (search) as he apologized for a theft that resulted in spammers sending out up to 7 billion unsolicited e-mails.
"The Internet is not lawless" was the lesson of the case, said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Siegal (search).
"The public at large has an interest in making sure people respect the same values that apply in everyday life, on the Internet," Siegal said.
Smathers' lawyer, Jeffrey Hoffman, called the theft a "dumb, stupid, insane act" that his client feels terrible about.
Smathers apologized to a half dozen members of his family who had flown from California and Indiana to attend the sentencing as Hellerstein credited the former Harpers Ferry, W. Va., resident for his contrition and efforts to help the government.
Earlier this year, he had pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in a plea deal which had called for a sentence of at least a year and a half in prison.
In a letter from Smathers to the court that was read partially into the record by Siegal, Smathers tried to explain the crimes that AOL has said cost the company at least $300,000 and possibly millions of dollars.
"Cyberspace is a new and strange place," Siegal said Smathers wrote. "I was good at navigating in that frontier and I became an outlaw."
The judge imposed the reduced sentence of one year and three months, saying he recognized Smathers cooperated fully but lacked information to build other criminal cases.
He said leniency was appropriate for "someone who tries hard to bare his soul but doesn't have the information the government needs."
In December, Hellerstein said he was not convinced Smathers had committed a crime, but he accepted the plea in February when he said prosecutors had sufficiently explained why he had.
Smathers admitted accepting $28,000 from someone who wanted to pitch an offshore gambling site to AOL customers, knowing that the list of screen names might make its way to others who would send e-mail solicitations.
The judge has recommended that Smathers be forced to pay $84,000 in restitution, triple what he earned. He delayed the order to let AOL prove the damages were higher. The judge suggested the $300,000 damage figure was speculative.
Prosecutors said Smathers had engaged in the interstate transportation of stolen property and had violated a new federal CAN-SPAM law, short for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, which is meant to diminish unsolicited e-mail messages about everything from herbal penile enlargement pills to mortgages.
In December, the judge said he had dropped his own AOL membership because he received too much spam.
America Online Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Warner Inc., has since launched a major assault on spam, significantly reducing unsolicited e-mails.
Smathers was fired by AOL in June 2004. Authorities said he used another employee's access code to steal the list of AOL customers in 2003 from its headquarters in Dulles, Va.
Smathers allegedly sold the list to Sean Dunaway, of Las Vegas, who used it to send unwanted gambling advertisements to subscribers of AOL, the world's largest Internet provider. Charges are pending against Dunaway.
The stolen list of 92 million AOL addresses included multiple addresses used by each of AOL's estimated 30 million customers. It is believed to be still circulating among spammers.
The judge refused a Probation Department recommendation that Smathers be banned from his profession as a software engineer, saying he trusted Smathers had learned his lesson.