Spam Solutions Hard to Find

WASHINGTON — An overflow crowd at the opening session of the Federal Trade Commission’s Spam Forum Wednesday was quickly disabused of any notions that there are any simple answers to stopping the plague of unsolicited e-mail. The morning panelists, which included representatives from AOL, Microsoft and the Direct marketing Association (DMA), couldn’t even agree on the definition of spam.

The only real point of agreement was that action is needed now before, as FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris said, the flood of spam destroys the benefits of e-mail. What that action should be, however, was a contentious point.

U.S. Senators Conrad Burns (R.-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D.-Ore) said strong federal legislation is ultimate solution, but Silicon Valley Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D.Calif.) urged a much lighter federal touch. Christine Gregoire, the Washington state attorney general, wanted to know why weaker federal laws should pre-empt tougher state sanctions. Other panelists sliced and diced proposed federal legislation into a host of conflicting opinions and approaches.

Burns and Wyden are the co-sponsors of the CAN SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act), which calls for unsolicited e-mail marketing messages to have a valid return address. The legislation would also mandate e-mail marketers be required to remove customers from their mailing lists if requested.

The bill gives more legal ammunition for ISPs to take spammers to court, allows the FTC to impose fines, and gives state attorneys general the power to bring lawsuits.

Lofgren’s proposed legislation is called the REDUCE Spam Act (Restrict and Eliminate Delivery of Unsolicited Commercial E-mail). The bill would create a bounty for the first person who reports a particular spammer and establishes criminal penalties for fraudulent spam. Lofgen also wants unsolicited e-mail to have labeled subject lines, such as ADV.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who is speaking at the afternoon session, has proposed legislation to create a national “do-not-spam” registry under the FTC’s auspices and would also force Internet advertisers to put an ADV tag in the subject line of any unsolicited piece of e-mail. Burns and Wyden’s bill contains no subject line labeling requirement.

“Burns-Wyden is a good first step,” said Brian Arbogast, corporate VP of Microsoft’s Identity, Mobile and Partner Service Group. “We also need to give states and ISPs more private right of action and require ADV labeling.”

Robert Weintzen, president of the DMA, which has long opposed legislation targeted at direct marketers, added, “We think Burns-Wyden is the way to go and we need to get on with it.”

Gregoire, whose new state anti-spam law has survived a series of legal attacks, said Burns-Wyden “is not tough enough” and contains too many loopholes.

“If we allow a crazy quilt of state laws, the spammers will play the states off each other,” Wyden said.

While most of the panelists and speakers supported subject line labeling, Weintzen’s DMA said the proposal was the proverbial slippery slope.

“The DMA opposes laws that would require government to classify speech with specific language,” the DMA said in a statement released Wednesday. “For example, if the government can force the use of ADV to signify advertisements, then couild it also force the REL for religious matter or POL for political or CHAR for subjects relating to charities?”

Just as the DMA opposed the national “Do Not Call” legislation, it’s against Schumers “Do Not Mail” proposal.

“Proposals to create government-operated do-not-e-mail registries would fail to nab spammers,” the DMA statement said. “In fact, such a list would only punish reputable marketers who would abide by it what illegitimate spammer is likely to run its list through a do-not-e-mail system.”

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