A group of e-mail experts advanced a number of ways to deal with unsolicited commercial e-mail, including better technology, an overhaul of the way the internet works and new laws, but were unable to agree which approach would be best.
The experts, attending a three-day spam conference at the US Federal Trade Commission could not even agree on the definition of spam. Some antispam activists and companies insisted the term covered all unsolicited bulk e-mail, and some e-mail marketers said spam should be defined more narrowly, as unsolicited commercial e-mail that includes false subject lines or misleading e-mail headers.
"There wouldn't be any solicited commercial e-mail if there wasn't some way to approach these people," protested Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association, when other panelists suggested that spam was any unsolicited commercial e-mail.
Wientzen's comment prompted an outbreak of murmurings from other panellists and audience members, but Laura Atkins, president of the antispam SpamCon Foundation, admitted that banning all unsolicited bulk e-mail may not be in line with the US Constitution's First Amendment right to free speech.
"'Unsolicited and bulk' may not be the best definition for a law," she said.
The FTC spam hearing came after a flurry of activity surrounding spam, from organisations and companies announcing spam research efforts, to the introduction of two bills in the US Congress aimed at curbing the amount of spam. Estimates at the FTC hearing ranged from 40% to 75% of all e-mail traffic as being spam, and the FTC released a study on Tuesday saying that two-thirds of all spam contained false information.
Clifton Royston, a systems architect for Hawaiian Internet service provider LavaNet, said his company paid nearly $200,000 last year to fight spam.
"That's reflected in everyone's internet bill," he said. "A large part of what you're paying for Internet service is because of spam."
US senator Charles Schumer said he planned to introduce a series of antispam bills, including a federal no-spam registry modelled after do-not-call telemarketing registries, criminal and civil penalties for spammers who do not comply, and tougher antifraud measures.
Schumer's legislation would require commercial e-mail to be labelled as advertising, and he rejected criticisms that a no-spam registry would hamper free speech, saying that commercial speech is not as protected as political speech under the First Amendment.
"I am saying today that enough is enough," Schumer told the spam conference audience. "It's time to take back the Internet from spammers."
Rob Courtney, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology, cited a study released by his group in mid-March that suggested e-mail harvesting programs are fairly easy to fool by spelling out "at" and "dot" in e-mail addresses on websites. However, he admitted that spammers may, eventually, catch on.
But William Waggoner, founder of AAW Marketing in Las Vegas, Nevada, protested that technology techniques such as spam filtering are hurting legitimate e-mail marketers. When someone in the audience laughed at that comment, Waggoner fired back, "You think that's funny?"
Waggoner, who collects e-mail addresses of people who sign up for free trips and products at websites, also disputed claims from other panellists that the problem with spam is that sending commercial e-mail is cheap.
"If you guys saw my internet bill every month, it would floor most people in this room. I don't know what this cheap is about."
In addition to Schumer's proposed legislation, panellists discussed Can-Spam, a bill reintroduced this month that would allow fines of up to $10 per e-mail to senders of unsolicited e-mail who refuse to stop.
A survey last month of 535 US workers using e-mail, commissioned by e-mail filtering company SurfControl, found that 86% would support legislation that outlaws commercial e-mail with fake headers or misleading subject lines.
But Christine Gregoire, attorney general for the state of Washington, questioned whether Can-Spam would pre-empt more stringent state antispam laws.
She suggested that some of the defences in the bill are weak, including not holding e-mailers responsible for opt-out notices if their in-boxes are full.
In the end, the only way to fix the growing spam problem may be a complete overhaul of the internet's architecture, said Gilson Terriberry, president of the Direct Contact Marketing Group.
Direct e-mail campaigns have, in the past, "levelled the playing field for small businesses", he said, although he admitted that sending out postcards may soon become a more cost-effective method of reaching customers because so many people are ignoring commercial e-mail.