Senate squashes spam

WASHINGTON (10/23/2003) - Following years of debate, the U.S. Senate has unanimously approved an antispam bill that would let the government and ISPs sue spammers who violate new restrictions on unsolicited, commercial e-mail.

The first federal legislation to tackle spam, the bill requires bulk e-mailers to indicate a valid return address, disclose that the content is advertising, and give consumers opt-out mechanisms. The bill also bans e-mail sent to addresses obtained from automated mechanisms, such as Web-crawling and e-mail harvesting. Bulk e-mailers would be prohibited from sending e-mail to a person who has opted out.

The House is expected to take up its antispam bills, which include two competing versions. House members had indicated they would take action if the Senate acted, says Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), which has closely watched the progress of several antispam bills in both houses this session.

"Today, the Senate has sent the message that the government is going on the offensive against kingpin spammers," said Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a sponsor of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM), after the Wednesday night vote. "Americans are tired of just watching and fretting over in-boxes clogged with unwanted e-mail, and this legislation is an important step toward giving them more control."

Violations of the bill's conditions could result in criminal and civil penalties, including a one-year prison term, a civil lawsuit, and a US$1 million fine.

Legislative Orders

The bill provides the following:

- Requires senders of marketing e-mail to include a return address so the consumer can tell them to stop.

- Requires that an unsolicited advertisement be clearly indicated as such, and that it contain a valid physical postal address.

- Prohibits false and deceptive headers and subject lines so that consumers can identify the message source and ISPs can identify the high-volume senders of spam.

- Imposes monetary damages against spammers who employ automatic harvesting and dictionary attacks using computer-generated e-mail addresses.

- Calls for enforcement by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general, and ISPs, including the possibility for multimillion-dollar judgments.

- Directs the FTC to recommend a nationwide "Do Not E-Mail" list modeled on the "Do Not Call" list.

Other Ideas Added

The bill also includes various amendments, the most significant of which, proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), would allow entire domains to opt out of unsolicited e-mail.

"Without domainwide opt-out, (the bill) is a federal license to spam," said Andrew Barrett of SpamCon, a Washington-based antispam advocacy group.

Domainwide opt-outs let any network or ISP opt out on behalf of all its customers. Barrett says this is the most important antispam measure, because it means spam won't ever reach the users. Without this measure, users would have to receive at least one spam before they could opt out. Under this provision, "the spam traffic never hits their network and they don't have to spend money to filter out the spam," says Barrett.

The bill also incorporates amendments by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) that would sentence spammers to five years in prison if they engaged in various spam practices such as hacking into someone else's computer to send spam.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), a cosponsor of the bill, says people will think twice now before they unleash bulk e-mail.

Consumer advocacy groups applaud the Senate's adoption of the bill.

"We're not going to solve everything," says the CDT's Schwartz. "ISPs and the attorney general can take the spammers to court. It's the key to being able to enforce other future provisions that can stop spam."

Diverse Allies

Even marketing groups are calling for an end to spam.

"It's vitally important for our industry to seize the opportunity to join the debate about how to stop spam," says H. Robert Wientzen, president and chief executive officer of the Direct Marketing Association. "Otherwise, legitimate e-mail marketers--those who rank among the biggest stakeholders in the debate's outcome--risk being left on the sidelines."

Schwartz says it's hard to identify the spammers who hide their tracks well, bouncing their mail off international mail servers. "If you can't trace the people, then there's no way to go after them," he says.

More than half of the 30 billion e-mail messages exchanged daily are spam, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. It estimates that spamming costs American businesses between $10 billion and $87 billion each year in antispam equipment and lost productivity.

The state of California also passed antispam legislation earlier this year. Its new law is even tougher, requiring an "opt in" statement by consumers before mass marketers can send commercial solicitations by e-mail.

Chang writes for the Medill News Service.

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