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FTC asks for greater spam-fighting powers

The US Federal Trade Commission has asked the US Congress for greater powers in fighting spam, including the ability to require internet service providers to turn over spam complaints about their customers.

"Spam has become the weapon of choice for those engaged in fraud and deception," said FTC commissioner Orson Swindle.

Among the spam measures the FTC requested were:

  • The power to require third-party sources of information in an investigation to keep FTC subpoenas confidential for a limited period. When targets of FTC investigations are notified of investigations, they often destroy documents, the FTC argued
  • The ability to create new rules against deceptive and abusive spam practices, including defining what is a deceptive or abusive e-mail
  • Permission to share information from FTC investigations with counterparts in other countries. At present, the agency is prohibiting from sharing certain investigative information with other countries
  • Clarification in law that a person who highjacks a customer's e-mail account is an unauthorised user, not a customer of an ISP entitled to protections under law.

Representatives of Verizon Communications and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) said they supported the FTC's ideas for fighting spam on the whole, but objected to specific pieces of the proposal.

Allowing the FTC to obtain the text of e-mail messages without prior notice to the customer would give the agency broad powers other law enforcement agencies do not enjoy, said Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel of Verizon.

Verizon, which has fought subpoenas of the names of music downloaders from the Recording Industry Association of America, recommended the FTC get an order from a judge before receiving access to a person's e-mail.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Epic, raised similar objections, saying the FTC's proposed subpoena power could sacrifice US privacy rights.

But senators did not question the FTC proposals, instead calling for the agency to get tougher on spam. Swindle noted that the FTC has recently prosecuted several spammers. "We have had recently a number of relatively good hangings," he said. "But the spam goes on."

Swindle advocated a multifaceted approach to fighting spam, including legislation and the IT industry stepping up and providing more technological tools to consumers. He faulted technology companies for not creating those tools for consumers to control their in-boxes.

The FTC also asked Congress to allow it to investigate consumer fraud cases at telecommunications carriers, which have been exempt from FTC oversight. Commissioners argued that telecom carriers now compete with entertainment and technology companies that are subject to FTC investigations.

But Lawrence Sarjeant, general counsel of the United States Telecom Association, argued that telecommunications companies are already regulated by the Federal Communications Commissions and state public service commissions.

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service


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