Jail Time for Spammers?

By Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2003-04-29

Jail Time for Spammers?

Joining the growing crusade against the scourge of e-mail messages like "$2,000,000 Instant Win Game!," "Hot, Horny Sex Videos!," and "Feel and Look Younger Again!," U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Tuesday introduced a bill that proposes the toughest penalties yet for spammers, including jail time.

Illustrating the level of frustration lawmakers are registering over unwanted commercial e-mail, repeat spammers could be sentenced to up to two years in prison under the proposed legislation.

According to a report compiled by Schumers office, more than eight million junk e-mails a day are delivered to New York City residents alone. Getting rid of the unwanted messages takes New Yorkers 4.2 million hours a year, assuming it takes five seconds to identify and delete each spam, the study found.

Schumers bill would establish a no-spam directory, similar to the do-not-call lists created by the Federal Trade Commission and by numerous state regulators to curb unwanted telemarketing. The FTC would create a "no-spam" registry that could be viewed on its Web site, and commercial e-mailers would have to review the list before sending mass e-mail. The bill would set aside $75 million to set up and maintain the registry and enforce the provisions.

The most common forms of spam include online gambling service ads, pornography, herbal remedies and often-fraudulent financial schemes. The graphic sexual nature of much spam available to children has lawmakers particularly concerned. Under the Schumer bill, parents could register their childrens e-mail addresses to prevent unwanted e-mail from being delivered.

The proposed legislation also would require commercial e-mailers and advertisers to include the letters "ADV" in the subject line, and headers would have to accurately reflect the content and source of the message. Additionally, there would have to be an opportunity for receivers to opt out of future e-mail, and fraudulent "unsubscribe" features would be banned.

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Earlier this month, Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., re-introduced the CAN-SPAM bill, which won the support of the Senate Commerce Committee last year but did not make it to a vote on the Senate floor. Backed by large Internet Service Providers, including Yahoo! Inc. and America Online Inc., the Burns/Wyden bill would require that all unsolicited marketing e-mail contain a valid return address and an accurate subject heading. Senders would be banned from sending further messages once a consumer asked them to stop.

While praising the Burns/Wyden initiative as a "good, first step," Schumer said it doesnt go far enough. His proposal also delves into the problem of automated e-mail address harvesting. Software programs that automatically crawl the Web and locate e-mail addresses in public areas such as Web sites, news groups and chat rooms, would be banned.

The Federal Trade Commission Wednesday will open a three-day forum in Washington on the problem of spam and how best to combat it.

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