US spam law debate rages on

The US Congress is pushing for an antispam law to be passed this year, but two proposals drew criticism yesterday from antispam...

The US Congress is pushing for an antispam law to be passed this year, but two proposals drew criticism yesterday from antispam activists for not going far enough.

Two House proposals, the Reduction in Distribution of (RID) Spam Act of 2003 and the Anti-Spam Act of 2003, two of nine bills addressing spam introduced in Congress this year, are under discussion.

Supporters of the Anti-Spam Act promoted it as tougher on spam than RID.

However, a representative of the Consumers Union pressed for tougher legislation than provided by either bill, including the right of private e-mail users to file class-action lawsuits against spammers.

Chris Murray, legislative counsel for the Consumers Union, has also called for Congress to pass a law forcing companies to get opt-in permission from customers before sending them commercial e-mail, but yesterday he said an opt-in provision did not seem politically realistic.

Murray defended his call for class-action lawsuits, however, after Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, suggested most spammers would be "judgment proof". Stearns called for civil and criminal penalties for spammers, which are included in both bills, and he questioned if class-action lawsuits might target legitimate companies that mistakenly send out unsolicited e-mail.

"Spam is such an enormous problem, we need to recruit the help of all sides of this, and consumers are an absolutely integral part of that," Murray responded. "I think that people would go after the money, but assuming that (companies) with the money have done some bad behavior, I don't think that's necessarily out of line."

But Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at, said his company would not support legislation that would penalise legitimate companies who fall victim to technology or human mistakes.

" will support particular legislation only if it recognises that legitimate businesses occasionally make honest mistakes," he said. "Such truly honest mistakes simply are not the cause ... of consumer angst."

Also absent from either bill is a trusted e-mail sender idea being advanced by Microsoft. One way to encourage e-mail senders to sign up would be for Congress to require an "ADV" advertisement label on all commercial e-mail sent by non-members of a trusted e-mail group.

Backers of Anti-Spam act touted its requirement that sexually oriented commercial e-mail include an opt-out link without recipients having to look at adult-themed pictures, and its requirement that if a recipient opts out of receiving future e-mail from a company, in the same request, he or she can also opt out of any e-mail from business affiliates of that company.

Meanwhile, RID requires sexually oriented e-mail to include an "ADT" label, but does not include a provision that allows recipients to opt out of e-mail from a company and all its business affiliates. Instead, recipients would have to opt out of receiving e-mail from each business partner.

Critics of RID said it would require them to opt out repeatedly, giving them control over their inbox.

They also objected to RID's definition of spam as e-mail that has as its primary purpose a commercial message, saying that this definition would allow spammers to send unsolicited e-mail with a commercial message buried inside it.

While the subcommittee members argued over approaches, all said Congress needs to pass antispam legislation. Charles "Garry" Betty, president and chief executive officer of internet service provider EarthLink, said the amount of spam coming into his network has increased by 500% in the past 18 months and now accounts for half of all e-mail traffic on EarthLink's networks.

EarthLink has used spam-blocking techniques which catch more than 70% of spam and has issued more than 100 lawsuits against spammers to fight the influx, but customers are still sick of spam.

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service

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