This spring, privacy activists revealed that Microsoft's free email service, Hotmail, sends its subscribers' email address, city, and state information to InfoSpace, an Internet white pages service. InfoSpace then combines this information with the subscribers' telephone numbers and home addresses. The result is a user database that spam advertisers (advertisers that send bulk mailings) can—and do—access.

Privacy activists say that this Hotmail practice opens subscribers' email accounts to annoying mass mailings. But Microsoft denies this claim. "We're clearly stating what this is," said MSN Product Manager Sarah Lefko. "It's a consumer benefit."

A spot check of my Hotmail account, which I almost never use, revealed 40 spam messages with random subject lines including "CONGRATULATIONS! YOU'VE WON!" "Freedom from DEBT!" and "LOSE 10 POUNDS IN 48 HOURS!" Although Microsoft's Inbox Protector catches most of the offending email messages and reroutes them to a different email folder under my account, MSN Messenger still displays a dialog box every time a spam message arrives.

In short, even unused Hotmail accounts are the target of spam, and Microsoft's relationship with InfoSpace is at least partly to blame. When you sign up for a Hotmail account, the service automatically adds your address to the InfoSpace Internet white pages unless you clear the check box next to that option during registration. Hotmail's privacy statement says that Microsoft won't sell, lease, or rent any of the information in its subscriber database. However, whether InfoSpace pays Microsoft for the privilege of being a default choice during the Hotmail registration process is unclear, and neither InfoSpace nor Microsoft is talking. "Clearly, when you're signing up for a new Hotmail account, you have the opportunity to uncheck that \[option\]," Lefko told the Associated Press.

Unfortunately, this opportunity might not be sufficiently clear to average Hotmail users, many of whom aren't technically sophisticated enough to understand the ramifications of the preselected check box. Any Hotmail user can log on to the InfoSpace Web site and access Hotmail email addresses, 1000 to a page. This capability lets spam advertisers easily collect valid email addresses and leads to the large volume of spam to which most Hotmail users are subjected.

If you're a Hotmail user, you can log on to the InfoSpace Web site and search for your email address. If it appears, then you're already in the database. Although you can remove your address from InfoSpace, doing so might not have the desired effect: After advertisers have added your address to their mailing lists, you can't do anything about it.