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E-mail tax and international treaty proposed in fight against spam

A US Senate hearing yesterday discussed ways to deter spammers. Ideas included levying a small charge for for each e-mail sent and setting up an international spam treaty.

Senator Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat, recommended that lawmakers approve a small charge per piece of e-mail sent.

"I think it's worth looking at some very, very small charge for every e-mail sent, so small that it would not be onerous for an individual or business that has regular [e-mail] use, but it would be a deterrent for those who are sending millions and even billions of these e-mails," he said.

In early March, Dayton introduced the Computer Owners' Bill of Rights, which proposed creating a national antispam registry but does not include a charge for sending e-mail. But at the Wednesday hearing he suggested the e-mail tax, as well as an antispam Swat team to combat growing amounts of unsolicited commercial e-mail.

New York Democrat Charles Schumer proposed an international spam treaty, saying that a US-only law would cause the "most prolific spammers to flee to other countries".

E-mail marketers trying to do the right thing by providing contact information and opt-out links are being driven underground by ISPs who kill their service after a few thousand complaints, said Ronald Scelson, operator of Scelson Online Marketing.

Scelson's company was forced to disguise the sender information of the 180 million pieces of e-mail it sends out every day after one carrier shut him off after receiving 1,200 complaints. But he pointed out that with a 1% response rate on the unsolicited commercial e-mail it sends out, far more people are buying the products advertised than complaining about the spam.

Scelson promised to work with Congress on any spam legislation. He claimed that some ISPs are adding to the estimated $10bn cost of spam to US businesses in 2003 by setting up spam filters which require bulk e-mailers to send one message at a time, eating up additional bandwidth at both ends of the e-mailing process.

He suggested that outlawing most commercial e-mail amounts to censorship, and asked senators if they were planning to outlaw bulk postal mail as well.

Scelson advocated that all e-mail applications include a "no bulk e-mail" box that customers can check, forcing bulk e-mail to bounce back to the sender.

"II agree that there needs to be a solution, but just don't take the freedom away from the individual, this should be their right, not for the carriers to say, 'We're going to shut you down or we're going to block you'. "

Committee members Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, promoted their Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (Can-Spam) Act, which outlaws false e-mail headers and requires senders of bulk commercial e-mail to provide legitimate addresses where people can opt out of future e-mail.

But antispam activists have criticised the bill for allowing only fines of $10 per e-mail, instead of requiring that bulk e-mailers receive permission from people before sending them e-mail.

During the hearing, commissioner Orson Swindle of the US Federal Trade Commission repeated criticisms of Can-Spam and other antispam legislation voiced at an FTC spam forum held late last month.

He said that internet users should not have to opt out of every piece of junk e-mail they receive, he said, but he complained that companies that send e-mail do not seem to have the will to deal with the problem because they might hurt their own marketing opportunities.

Swindle advocated a technological solution that would allow internet users to block all e-mail except from people in their address books. "Give the consumer the power," he said. "Empower the consumer to say no to what's coming into his mailbox."

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, has proposed charging some spammers with racketeering offences.


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