Qwest has inserted a clause in its US ISP contract that threatens users with a $5 (£3) fine for each spam message sent from their account – even when they unknowingly do so as a result of a bot infection.
Alarmed business users are now widely publicising the clause, which is buried in the 14-page contract.
The US has the toughest spam laws and penalties in the world, and more spam cases are now coming to court.
Last week, a Florida man was fined $11.2bn by a court for sending out 280 million spam messages, after an ISP took action against him.
While the Qwest clause may be aimed primarily at professional spammers, the rate of bot infections is rapidly going up and is a serious problem in the US.
Bots are “zombie” computers infected with rogue code by remote attackers so they can use the machines to distribute spam and other malware without the owners knowing.
The $5 fine for each message sent is included in Qwest’s acceptable use policy, and is payable if the ISP itself has to pay damages for carrying spam over its network.
Exact damages would be payable if a case arose; when damages could not be worked out exactly, the $5 levy would be payable.
In response to the outcry from users, Qwest said it would treat any legal situation on a case-by-case basis, and would take into account whether customers had unwittingly distributed spam.