The anti-spam bandwagon is gaining speed as industry players counter pending bills with legislative proposals of their own—including one from Microsoft Corp. Wednesday. Proposals vary widely, covering a range of measures from jail time for repeat spammers to the imposition of a tiny charge for sending e-mail, and the Senate is slated to sort through all the options and vote on one before summers end.
In a letter to Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C. Wednesday, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates outlined a legislative plan to create incentives for e-mail marketers to adopt best practices and become certified as trustworthy senders. Under Gates plan, the Federal Trade Commission would provide a safe harbor for companies that join an FTC-approved self-regulatory group. The legislation would name the basic components of industry guidelines regarding notice and choice.
The Microsoft proposal, which would preempt state laws, would also provide broad rights to ISPs to prosecute spammers, and at the same time clarify that ISPs are not obligated to block or carry any given categories of e-mail.
The longest-standing anti-spam bill, the CAN-SPAM initiative sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., bans the use of false or deceptive headers or subject lines and requires senders to provide users with an opt-out feature. It also preempts state laws, which unsettles prosecutors in many of the 29 states that have already passed laws, and it forbids private rights of action.
Consumer groups are calling on Congress to take a tougher approach and give users a more affirmative role in the e-mail they receive. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is sponsoring legislation that would establish jail time as a penalty for serious, repeat spammers and create a national Do-Not-Spam list, fashioned after the FTCs Do-Not-Call list.
The approach one supports depends in large part on whether one defines spam as fraudulent and deceptive commercial e-mail or simply as unwanted commercial e-mail. The direct marketing industry, and to some degree the ISP industry, are pressing Congress to enhance tools to prosecute fraudulent spammers and leave legal e-mail marketers alone.
Ted Leonsis, vice chairman of America Online Inc., told the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday that spam is the most important issue AOL is facing today. “There is raw anger that spam generates,” Leonsis said, calling on lawmakers to create more tools for prosecuting fraudulent and deceptive spammers.
Others see the problem more as an issue of sheer e-mail volume, to which ISPs themselves contribute. Charging that AOL operates its “own personal spam company” via AOL Special Offers, Ronald Scelson, president of Scelson Online Marketing and self-styled “most hated person” at the hearing, told the committee that some ISPs are filtering out legal messages if they receive one complaint.
Everyone agrees that whatever measure the U.S. Congress enacts will not solve the entire spam problem because a large percentage of spam originates overseas. Wednesday, Schumer called for an international treaty to enable the United States to collaborate with other nations battling spam.
The FTC has asked Congress for additional authority to share information with law enforcement agencies overseas.
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