Anti-Spam Bills in the Works

Despite doubts over effectiveness, legislation pending in congress deemed 'step in the right direction'.

If only passing effective anti-spam laws were as easy as slashing your mortgage or losing weight by responding to unsolicited e-mail. But apparently, its not.

Although legislators and regulators continue to work hard at passing and enforcing laws banning unsolicited or fraudulent commercial e-mail, experts say their efforts may be too little, too late. Even with law enforcement on the lookout, experts say they doubt laws will stop spammers to any large degree.

Sure, companies that use e-mail marketing for legitimate reasons will adhere to anti-spam laws. But, experts say, its the fraudulent e-mail that users dislike the most—offers of get-rich-quick schemes and missives from Nigeria asking for immediate attention—that wont stop coming.

Legislation will help to control legitimate bulk e-mail," said Marten Nelson, an analyst with Ferris Research Inc., in Nice, France. "[But] true spammers that send unsolicited e-mails dont care about the law. To some degree, they are criminals."

The earliest any federal laws could appear on the books is this fall. While there are a number of anti-spam bills pending in Congress, experts say the Can Spam Act of 2001, sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is most likely to become the first U.S. law to directly address spam. The act grants additional enforcement authority to the Federal Trade Commission to take action against spammers and allows ISPs to file lawsuits against people who fail to comply with the laws. The legislation also would impose fines of up to $1.5 million on spammers who continue to contact users who have opted out of an e-mail database.

Consumer advocate organizations, including CAUCE, or Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, are also big proponents of another pending anti-spam bill, the Wireless Telephone Spam Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. In a bid to address wireless spam before it becomes rampant, the act amends the Communications Act of 1934 to make the use of mobile telephone messaging systems to transmit unsolicited advertisements illegal.

The tricky part about passing legislation is that spam is regarded as commercial speech and, therefore, is protected by the First Amendment. Legislators also disagree on whether new legislation should require that consumers opt out, or specifically ask to be removed from mailing lists or if they must have chosen to opt in for future mailings before receiving any commercial e-mail.

Experts say one problem with the opt-in option is that spammers can place a user on a mailing list, claim the user opted in for the messages and ignore requests for removal. But even such practices have come under scrutiny. In May, New Yorks attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, sued mass e-mail marketing company MonsterHut Inc., in Niagara Falls, N.Y., on charges of deceptive business practices and false advertising after thousands of consumers reportedly said they continued to receive MonsterHut mailings even though they had opted out of the companys e-mail databases.

Although not optimistic that legislation will keep spam from flooding their organizations, IT managers said they back the efforts. "Legislation is a step in the right direction," said Michael Pridgen, distributed systems team lead at Pitt County Memorial Hospital, in Greenville, N.C.

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