FTC Chief Critical of Proposed Anti-Spam Bills

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Tim Muris said Tuesday proposed anti-spam bills in Congress would “do little or nothing” to halt unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Speaking at an Aspen, Colo., conference on telecommunications and technology, Muris said because the Internet allows anonymity and because spammers can send thousands of e-mails a day at essentially no cost, there is little incentive to stop the practice despite new state laws and proposed federal statutes.

According to Muris, some proposed legislation could actually make it more difficult to prosecute problematic spam. He cited one bill that would make suing a spammer more complicated than the current process under the FTC Act, and other proposed bills that would require federal prosecutors to prove that a spammer falsified his identity in 10,000 different e-mails to bring a felony charge.

“As the Department of Justice has noted in testimony, such proof simply will often be impracticable,” Muris said.

Muris was equally critical of Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D.-N.Y.) bill to create a national Do-Not-Spam registry similar to the FTC’s widely popular Do-Not-Call list.

“My advice to consumers would be: don’t waste the time and effort to sign up,” Muris said.

He explained that “we are sure the National Do Not Call Registry will reduce calls significantly.” By contrast, he added, a Do Not Spam registry would be ineffective because spammers can constantly create new e-mail addresses and identities, and because it costs virtually nothing for a spammer to clog consumers’ inboxes.

“Instead, recipients and Internet Service Providers bear most of the costs,” Muris said.

Muris said any anti-spam legislation should address how to locate and prosecute spammers and bills must adequately address punishments, both civil and criminal.

“Our experience, and that of the few states that have tried to punish spammers, is that it can take months of investigation, and sometimes a dozen or more subpoenas, simply to locate a spammer,” Muris said, adding that technology could most effectively address the issue.

Muris explained that, as with any consumer protection action, the FTC can freeze spammers’ assets and seek consumer redress. In most cases, however, spammers have limited assets.

“Our authority already entitles us to more money than many of the spammers have,” Muris said. “Authority to get civil penalties will not make a dramatic difference.”

Muris said the FTC would continue to investigate and prosecute deceptive spam, as well as the deceptive and unfair use of e-mail technology. The FTC’s work to combat spam includes cooperation with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in the Spam Task Force, consumer and business education and outreach, and continued collaboration with government, ISPs, marketers, and technologists, following the widely-attended FTC Spam Forum in April.

Muris added that “eventually, the spam problem will be reduced, if at all, through technological innovations,” including improved ISP spam filters and the integration of anti-spam technology into the e-mail services ISPs provide for consumers. Until these capabilities become available, Muris said, “the ISPs need to empower consumers by providing the means to deal with spam more easily.”

On the whole, Muris concluded that “legislation cannot do much to solve the spam problem, because it can only make a limited contribution to the crucial problems of anonymity and cost shifting.”

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