U.S. Senate Cans Spam

The U.S. Senate Wednesday unanimously approved a bill meant to reduce the
overwhelming volume of spam by imposing tough penalties on spammers.

The bill,
sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), makes it
illegal to send unsolicited commercial e-mail or e-mail with misleading
addresses or subject headers. It also specifically makes it illegal to
harvest addresses without consumers’ knowledge.

Known as the Can Spam Act, it incorporates sections of other proposed
anti-spam bills, including provisions from a competing measure authored by
Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that create several
tiers of penalties, ranging up to five years in prison, for several common
spamming practices.

Competing anti-spam bills are stalled in the House Energy and
Commerce Committee, but both chambers says they committed to have a bill
on President Bush’s desk by the end of the year. Differences between the
Senate and House versions would have to resolved in a joint conference meeting.

The Burns-Wyden bill supersedes all state laws, including California’s
tough S.B. 186, signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis last weekend to go
into effect Jan. 1. Language in the Senate bill said that although many
states have enacted their own legislation to regulate or reduce unsolicited
e-mail, the lack of a geographic location for an e-mail address makes it
difficult for businesses to follow the disparate laws.

Penalties include fines of up to $1 million and up to one year of prison
for misleading header information. The bill also provides penalties for
persons who facilitate the transmission of spam — in other words, e-mail service
providers. It will be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, but state
attorneys general can bring actions in U.S. district court on behalf of
their citizens.

One widely-noted amendment to the bill requires the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to report to Congress with a plan for creating a
Do-Not-E-mail registry similar to the Federal Do-Not-Call list, an
initiative promoted by U.S. Sen.
Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.). It also gives the FTC the authority to implement such a list. Although the FTC and privacy advocates insist
such a registry won’t work, Schumer attached his bill as an amendment to
the Burns-Wyden bill.

It’s a popular addition. In a study commissioned by content security
firm SurfControl, 86 percent of employees supported the part of
the bill that outlaws messages with misleading information regarding the
identity of the sender and the content of the e-mail.

Another amendment shows that legislators have heeded marketers’
concerns. It gives the FTC the power to change the ten-day limit for
sending unsolicited e-mail after a consumer has opted out, after taking into
account, as it says, “the interests of recipients of commercial electronic
mail and the burdens imposed on senders of lawful commercial electronic
mail .”

Many e-mail marketers welcomed the legislation, flawed though it might
be. Dave Lewis, vice president for deliverability management and ISP
relations for e-mail services provider Digital Impact, said, “At this point,
all of us are saying, ‘Pass something, even if it isn’t 100 percent to our
liking. We can’t continue to deal with spam legislation at the state level,
with each state taking a different twist. At least now, there will be some
standard.”

Lee Smith, president of market research firm InsightExpress,
acknowledged that a Do-Not-Email registry wouldn’t stop spam, but said the
legislation was a necessary first step.

“The bill will get legitimate businesses to think about how they engage
with their customers and clients. IT will also provide a platform to shut down people within the U.S. who
issue spam,” Smith said.

While state and federal attorneys go after spammers, he
said ultimately, it will be ISPs that really will enforce the law.

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