Professor bets his job on anti-spam bounty

A US congresswoman plans to introduce an anti-spam bill that would pay a bounty to some who report spammers, and Stanford University law professor and cyberlaw author Lawrence Lessig says he's so sure the bill will cut the amount of spam sent that he'll quit his job if it doesn't.

          A US congresswoman plans to introduce an anti-spam bill that would pay a bounty to some who report spammers, and Stanford University law professor and cyberlaw author Lawrence Lessig says he's so sure the bill will cut the amount of spam sent that he'll quit his job if it doesn't.

          Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from San Jose, California, announced her plans to introduce the Restrict and Eliminate Delivery of Unsolicited Commercial Email (REDUCE) Spam Act during an event for Stanford law students in Stanford, California, this week. The bill, similar in some ways to a bill introduced by two US senators earlier this month, introduces as a new wrinkle a bounty for the first person to report a spam offender, with a reward of 20% of the civil fine levied by the US Federal Trade Commission against the spammer.

          The bounty for spammers is an idea that Lessig has been advancing for several months, and in January he publicly bet his job on the effectiveness of a bill that would offer a bounty. Lofgren's bill is "an example of be careful what you wish for," Lessig says. The bet would get Lessig's detractors to "rally for this proposal," he adds.

          With a civil fine of up to $US10 per offending piece of email, the potential bounty for those who report spam violations could be in the thousands of dollars, a spokesman for Lofgren says. Fines could be in the "magnitude of the thousands," the spokesman says.

          The bill could be effective "because prosecutors have better things to do than tracking down spammers," Lessig says. "It will soon be not worth it to send out 10,000 human growth hormone emails a day."

          Lofgren says most other antispam legislation that's been debated in Congress imposes criminal penalties, but she agreed with Lessig that "spamsters" aren't likely to make it on the agendas of most prosecuting attorneys. "The US attorneys have their hands full bringing actions against terrorists, against thieves," she says.

          Lofgren's bill, to be introduced this week, includes a number of provisions that, if broken by a sender of unsolicited commercial email, would trigger civil fines. The bill requires spammers to:

          -- Label bulk commercial spam as "ADV:" and bulk adult-themed spam as "ADV:ADLT."

          -- Provide valid return email addresses where a person can write to opt out of further emails.

          -- Not send any further email after a person opts out.

          -- Not send email with false or misleading routing information or deceptive subject headings.

          The bill also gives internet service providers the right to bring civil actions against marketers who violate those requirements and disrupt their networks, and it allows for criminal fines and up to a year in prison for fraudulent spam.

          Also this week, America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo announced an antispam initiative. Their combined effort will include the identification of suspicious email headers, better feedback options for consumers across the different email service providers, and closer cooperation with law enforcement authorities.

          "People are tired of hearing ‘you’ve got junk mail’ when they open their email in-boxes,” Lofgren says. "Companies and ISPs (internet service providers) are spending millions of dollars a year in trying to manage this problem."

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