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Politicians Send Spammers Holiday Gift

I consider myself a Christmas kind of guy, but if there's one group of people for whom I can extend no genuine holiday cheer, it's spammers.

If only our politicians felt the same way. Unfortunately, they were in a giving mood this week as Congress on Monday passed the Can Spam Act of 2003. The bill now heads for the Oval Office, where President Bush has vowed to sign it.

The legislation allegedly is aimed at controlling the increasingly annoying and costly practice of spamming, in which millions of e-mail boxes are assaulted each day with a ceaseless barrage of unsolicited, sometimes offensive and almost always deceptive come-ons. The Federal Trade Commission is charged with enforcing the Act.

But there are enough holes in the bill to bury every confidential e-mail you've ever received from the widow of a Nigerian prince. The bottom line is that there is nothing here that promises to reduce the amount of spam bombarding your in-box or your network.

The main flaw in the Act is that it allows unsolicited commercial e-mail -- otherwise known as spam -- to be sent as long as it includes an opt-out option, a valid subject line and a working return email address.

That's not exactly prohibitive. Indeed, rather than punish or even curtail the act of spamming, what the bill actually does is legitimize it, as industry observers pointed out in a recent Datamation article.

"This piece of legislation is telling people that as long as they don't lie, spam is all right," said Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer of the ePrivacy Group, a Pennsylvania-based company that makes anti-spam software.

As things stand now, a lot of spammers don't lie. But they sure do spam. This bill won't change anything for them.

What about those shadier spammers? The Can Spam Act of 2003 makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail to intentionally falsify header information in unsolicited commercial email (UCE). There also are civil penalties numerous other spamming practices primarily designed to harvest more e-mail addresses.

Trouble is, much of the really deceptive and offensive spam that reaches our e-mail boxes comes from beyond U.S. borders, so it's unlikely any "rogue" international spammers will be scared straight by the bill or even by tough-guy talk from New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who said, "With this bill, Congress is saying that if you are a spammer, you can wind up in the slammer." (Schumer apparently has hired Don King as a press aide.)

And for a federal offense, "up to a year" in jail seems like a slap on the wrist compared to Virginia's anti-spam state law, under which two men who were indicted this week face up to 20 years in prison.

The war against spam is a tough slog, and I don't pretend to have any magic bullets. (If I did, I'd be planning my IPO right now.) But as much as I would like the Can Spam Act of 2003 to work, I know I can look forward to many more opportunities to purchase herbal viagra pills for myself and my friends.

But that's OK, because I'm a Christmas kind of guy.