War on Spam Gains 2 Allies

Microsoft, Symantec go to Washington to push new products.

The anti-spam crusade is gaining momentum as industry players, including Microsoft Corp. and Symantec Corp., counter pending bills on Capitol Hill with legislative proposals of their own.

To date, proposed ideas have covered a wide range of measures, from jail time for repeat spammers to a tiny charge on every piece of spam sent. The Senate is slated to sort through all the options and vote on one proposal before summers end.

Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., got into the act last week when company Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates called for Congress to create incentives for e-mail marketers to adopt best practices and become certified trusted senders. As part of the proposal, the Federal Trade Commission would provide a safe harbor for companies that join an FTC-approved self-regulating group. Legislation would require marketers to properly label their e-mail and would give ISPs the right to take spammers to court.

Symantec suggested to lawmakers last week that legislation should focus on false labeling and require a physical address in commercial bulk e-mail. The Cupertino, Calif., company, whose brand and products have been fraudulently peddled by e-mail, also asked Congress to give the FTC more resources to prosecute electronic fraud.

For America Online Inc., spam is the most important issue today, Ted Leonsis, AOL vice chairman, told the Senate Commerce Committee last week. "There is raw anger that spam generates," Leonsis said, adding that the government needs stronger tools to track down the most fraudulent offenders.

Others maintain, however, that anger stems not only from fraudulent e-mail but also from the growing volume of unsolicited messages, to which ISPs contribute. Charging that AOL, of New York, operates its "own personal spam company," Ronald Scelson, owner of Scelson Online Marketing Inc., in Slidell, La., told lawmakers that some ISPs are filtering out legal messages if they receive one complaint, driving bulk e-mailers to forge addresses.

Calling himself "the most hated person" at the hearing, Scelson said he sends as many as 180 million e-mail messages every day and that it takes him less than 24 hours to thwart an ISPs spam filters.

The industry approaches, which urge Congress to pre-empt state anti-spam laws, are largely consistent with the longest-standing anti-spam bill, the CAN-SPAM initiative sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. CAN-SPAM would ban the use of false or deceptive headers or subject lines, require senders to provide users with an opt-out feature, and prohibit private rights of action.

Consumer groups, and many state attorneys general, are calling on Congress to take a tougher approach. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is sponsoring a bill that would establish jail time as a penalty for serious, repeat spammers and create a national "Do not spam" list. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., last week suggested that a small tax on e-mail would deter spam.