The US government's tough stance on spam tightened this week with the introduction of a bill that would allow federal authorities to charge spammers with racketeering crimes.
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This is the third anti-spam bill introduced in Congress this year.
If passed, it would allow criminal charges under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (Rico), originally used in organised crime cases.
Rico allows authorities to seize the assets of businesses engaged in racketeering, the practice of using an organisation to obtain money illegally or intimidate people. It also lets victims of racketeering file civil lawsuits against the perpetrators.
Neither of the two previous antispam bills allowed for civil lawsuits, although several attendees at a US Federal Trade Commission spam forum earlier this month called for laws that would allow civil actions.
Senator Bill Nelson said his bill was designed to target the worst spam: e-mail messages sent by people seeking money illegally or engaged in other illegal acts.
"Using the Rico law will let us hit the bad guys where it really hurts - in the pocket," he said. "And the more firepower we give victims and prosecutors, the better."
The racketeering charges would be applied to unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail that uses false routing information or forged return addresses, as well as spam sent to someone who asked to opt out.
Spammers who harvest e-mail addresses for the purpose of sending unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail also would be subject to Rico charges, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison, plus criminal fines and the possibility of civil lawsuits.
Nelson's working definition of "bulk" is 10,000 messages, so the bill would not affect individuals sending jokes to a dozen friends or legitimate marketers who have business relationships with their customers.
"If you send me something, you get one chance. If I say, 'take me off the list', that's it," said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin. "If you send a million e-mails, it'd be our opinion that each one of those e-mails would be a separate act, and you'd have a million violations."
Asked if racketeering charges might be overkill for spam, McLaughlin disagreed. "By use of technology, [a criminal] is exponentially increasing the number of victims. If anybody thinks we should not use the toughest legal means available, they should take another look at it."