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US spam law makes little impact so far

The chairman of a US Senate committee called for more federal enforcement of a new antispam law amid reports that the amount of spam sent to US consumers may be rising since the law went into effect in January.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, questioned why the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had not focused on the companies using spammers to advertise their products while that agency attempts to enforce the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (Can-Spam) Act.

The FTC and federal law enforcement officials brought Can-Spam and other charges against two alleged spamming companies in late April, but McCain urged the FTC and the FBI to step up their enforcement efforts against spammers, including child pornography spammers, during a hearing on the effectiveness of Can-Spam.

"If the FTC can't find the spammers, it should do the next best thing: go after the businesses that knowingly hire spammers to promote their goods and services," said McCain.

"At a minimum, the FTC could put thousands of businesses - many of them online pornography retailers - on notice that using anonymous spam is an illegal means of driving consumer traffic to their websites."

But bulk e-mailers trying to comply with the law - by using their own IP (Internet Protocol) addresses instead of forging headers, and by including their company names and postal addresses in the text of the e-mail - are being punished by ISPs such as America Online, said Ronald Scelson, president of MicroEvolutions.com, a bulk e-mail company based in Texas.

Scelson's company has stopped using common spamming techniques to comply with Can-Spam, but AOL and other ISPs are still blocking his company's e-mail, Scelson said.

Scelson told the committee he could go back to using forged headers and defeat most spam filters. "Does the government want us to mail legal or not?" Scelson asked. "As long as we're doing it the right way and we're going to get blocked, interfered with and shut down, people are going to go around it."

While senators called for more enforcement of Can-Spam, representatives of the FTC and FBI said their agencies are working hard to combat spam. The FTC is still working on some rules related to Can-Spam, and promised it would deliver a plan for a national do-not-e-mail registry by Can-Spam's 16 June deadline. An FTC rule requiring sexually explicit e-mails to be labelled went into effect last week.

Representatives of spam-filtering service Postini and the Consumers Union told the committee that the amount of unsolicited commercial e-mail continues to rise after Can-Spam became law. Postini, which processes about 1.3 billion e-mails a week, has seen the percentage of spam in that e-mail processed increase from 78% to 83% since the law went into effect.

Still, Can-Spam was a positive step in fighting spam because it set the ground rules for what is acceptable behavior, said Shinya Akamine, president and chief executive officer of Postini, adding that the increase in the amount of spam may have been higher without the law.

Akamine and Hans Peter Brondmo, senior vice president of e-mail marketing vendor Digital Impact, disagreed on what technological measures can be effective in blocking spam. Postini is blocking close to 99% of its customers' spam, Akamine said, but Brondmo said the only way to get rid of spam is to adopt sender-authentication protocols proposed by large ISPs including Microsoft and AOL.

AOLannounced during the hearing that the amount of spam e-mail hitting its subscribers' in-boxes declined by between 20% to 30%  in the past year, through a variety of spam-fighting initiatives. Can-Spam helped AOL and other ISPs sue hundreds of spammers in early March, said Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of America Online and president of the AOL Core Service.

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service


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