Congress fights over spam opt-in rules

Lawmakers and antispam activists argued over whether e-mail users should have to opt-in to receiving commercial e-mail and...

Lawmakers and antispam activists argued over whether e-mail users should have to opt in to receive commercial e-mail and whether they should have the right to sue spammers during a hearing on a bill in the US House of Representatives.

The Reduction in Distribution of (RID) Spam Act of 2003 allows internet service providers, but not individuals, to sue spammers. It also requires e-mail users to opt-out of unsolicited commercial e-mail if they do not want to receive future messages.

The US Department of Justice and the US Chamber of Commerce both offered support for RID Spam.

Joe Rubin, senior director of public and congressional affairs for the Chamber, said RID Spam's prohibitions against sending bulk e-mail with wrong or masked identifying information will help clean up spam sent from "illegitimate" businesses.

Requiring that customers opt in would hinder businesses' ability to share information on their products, said representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican and cosponsor of RID Spam.

He added that allowing class-action lawsuits against spammers would be an "abomination" that would punish large businesses that make a mistake by sending out an unwanted e-mail.

But Chris Murray, legislative counsel with Consumers Union, questioned how congress could decide how one piece of unsolicited commercial e-mail was spam and another was not.

There is a fine line between a legitimate business and a illegitimate business, he said, adding, "I think it's clear what we're talking about here is not removing the internet as an advertising vehicle. Consumers could still get pop-up ads."

While some members questioned whether the RID Spam Act went far enough in fighting unsolicited commercial e-mail, one lawmaker questioned if antispam legislation was needed at all.

Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, questioned why the US government wants to censor the internet.

"I believe we should not try to create a definition of spam and figure out what is meaningful and what is not meaningful [e-mail]," she said.

Waters seemed to be in the minority, with most members appearing to support RID Spam or something even tougher.

Rubin drew a distinction between unsolicited commercial e-mail from "illegitimate" businesses and legitimate ones. The bill's enforcement against spammers who hide their identities would target the majority of spam sent, he said.

If fraudulent or pornographic spam is significantly reduced, then e-mail users might not object to unsolicited e-mail from legitimate companies, Rubin said, but Congress should deal with those issues first.

However, Representative Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, questioned how Rubin could distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate unsolicited commercial e-mail. The problem with spam is the amount of it, not just that some of it lacks proper sender identification.

"Some of us don't think fraud is the only problem going on," Scott said. "Some people are offended by legitimate companies filling up their inboxes. Is it your position that any business should have the right to send unlimited spam just because it's legitimate? Is it your position that an honest vendor has an unlimited right to spam?"

Rubin answered that a line should be drawn between types of businesses sending bulk e-mail. "If [honest businesses] obtain your e-mail addresses legitimately, we don't think they should be limited in their communication to their customers," he said.

The US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved its own antispam bill, Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM), in June and two House subcommittees will examine a variety of antispam proposals during a hearing.

A staff member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security said the subcommittee plans to move the RID Spam bill, sponsored by Representative Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, through the committee as quickly as possible.

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service

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