Last week the US House Commerce Committee held meetings to discuss HR 3888, the House version of an antispam bill passed by the Senate last month as S 1618.
While representatives of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and other trade groups were invited to testify about the house junk e-mail bill, a group highly critical of the legislation was not allowed into the hearings.
John Mozena is with CAUCE, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.
"It's almost an obscenity," says Mozena. "The legislative process has hearings and shuts out the people who know best what the legislation is going to do, the people who've spent years addressing the problem, and the people who've been calling the hardest and the loudest for a law."
CAUCE believes Internet users should have the right to receive only commercial e-mail that they specifically request, and its members are concerned that the proposed Senate and House bills will legitimise unsolicited commercial e-mail.
Both bills attempt to reduce unsolicited commercial e-mail by making it illegal to forge the return address.
Ken Johnson is communications director for Representative Billy Tauzin Republican, Louisiana chair of the Telecommunications Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee. Johnson says the committee didn't mean to slight CAUCE, but it does want to move HR 3888 ahead quickly.
"We want to get something on the books now and see how it impacts the marketplace," says Johnson. "Billy (Tauzin) is very proactive ... and he's willing to take a second swing at this later if necessary. But given that this is a new phenomenon, we want to feel our way a little bit without overreacting, get some basic safeguards on the books, see how they impact people in the marketplace, then we'll move on from there."
Mozena of CAUSE says that if the US Congress passes the proposed antispam bills, it could encourage large companies to join the ranks of the small-fry operators who currently send most of the junk e-mail on the Internet.
As Mozena describes it, "When a company like AOL that has the marketing budget to span the globe with 3.5-inch disks decides to invest half of that in sending junk e-mail advertisements, or a company like AT&T decides that, in addition to calling people and asking them to switch their long-distance service, to devote a quarter of that budget to sending junk e-mail. ... You can send a lot of junk e-mail for a very small amount of money, and major corporations have the resources to just drown the Net in e-mail."
CAUCE's worries may be lost on most Internet users. According to a survey released on Tuesday at a Commerce Committee hearing on online privacy, 48% of Net users consider junk e-mail a very serious threat. That compares to 85% who said gathering information from children without parental consent is very serious. The survey, conducted by Privacy and American Business magazine, also found that the majority of Internet users don't believe the online industry can effectively regulate itself on privacy issues. Sixty percent of Net users say that legislation and legal enforcement are necessary to protect users' privacy online.