Bounty Hunting for Spammers?

By Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2003-04-30

Bounty Hunting for Spammers?

A fourth U.S. lawmaker threw her hat into the anti-spam ring this week, announcing planned legislation to combat the increasingly costly scourge of unsolicited e-mail. Previously opposed to measures limiting Internet use, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said Wednesday that she will introduce a bill that creates a bounty for identifying spammers.

The question surrounding the prospect of looming federal anti-spam regulation is not "if", but "how much?" Even lawmakers once resistant to wading into Internet regulation, such as Lofgren, are expressing the need to act quickly before the problem of spam outweighs the benefit of e-mail.

However, approaches to mitigating the problem vary considerably. At one end of the spectrum is a light-touch tactic endorsed by Lofgren, whose "Reduce Spam Act" would require all commercial e-mail to display the letters "ADV" in the subject line, the congresswoman said Wednesday at the Federal Trade Commissions Spam Forum in Washington.

Lofgrens measure, which she will introduce later this week, would also authorize the FTC to pay 20 percent of fines collected in prosecutions to individuals who identify spammers. Recognizing that district attorneys and U.S. attorneys are unlikely to have abundant resources to pursue spam, Lofgren said her measure would create a bounty, "unleashing the 18-year-olds to go after the spammers."

On the other end of the spectrum is an initiative announced earlier this week by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., which would create a "no-spam" registry, similar to the FTCs "do-not-call list," and authorize jail time up to two years for serious, repeat spammers.

"I would be very, very surprised if we didnt pass a comprehensive anti-spamming bill this session," Schumer said Wednesday at the FTC forum.

A more moderate approach is embodied in a bill sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., which the senators first introduced last year and re-introduced earlier this month. Known as the "CAN-SPAM" bill, the Burns/Wyden measure won the support of the Senate Commerce Committee in the last session but did not make it to a vote on the Senate floor. The bill would require that all unsolicited marketing e-mail contain a valid return address and an accurate subject heading, and senders would be banned from sending further messages once a consumer asked them to stop.

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Many in industry consider the Burns/Wyden initiative a good first step, but too weak to handle the problem. Brian Arbogast, a vice president at Microsoft Corp., said that the bill does not contain adequate enforcement opportunity for ISPs and states. Arbogast also said that legislation should contain a provision requiring "ADV" labeling.

From America Online Inc.s perspective, the Burns/Wyden approach sets good baseline standards, but "it needs to be complimented with strong criminal penalties for the really slimy folks," said Joe Barrett, senior vice president of Systems Operations at AOL.

Most state attorneys general oppose the Burns/Wyden measure because it pre-empts state legislation and creates too many loopholes for spammers to avoid prosecution, according to Christine Gregoire, the attorney general of Washington.

There is much debate among policy-makers over the very definition of spam. The direct marketing industry rejects the notion that all unsolicited, bulk e-mail constitutes spam. Maintaining that the problem of spam is caused by a small group of fraudulent people, Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association, said a key to the solution lies in identifying deceptive e-mailers.

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