FTC Commissioner on Spam Bills, Media Ownership

NEW YORK – In a candid talk last night, FTC Commissioner Mozelle W. Thompson weighed in on pending spam legislation and detailed how his agency may respond to the FCC’s relaxation of media ownership regulations.

“We need government action and much better tools to identify e-mail messages people want, not just the ones they don’t want,” he told a small group of New York City Web professionals at an event organized by Silicon Alley Station. Thompson added it would be more complicated than the FTC originally thought to create, “a framework in which good actors can act.”

There are currently six bills in Congress aimed at curbing spam. Half were introduced, Thompson pointed out, when the FTC announced a public SpamForum, held in April. “It’s not often you announce a hearing and three legislators introduce legislation and three major ISPs announce anti-spam programs within that same week,” he said. “The problem was much bigger than we anticipated when we scheduled the hearing.”

Asked to comment on the bills, Thompson seemed pleased with many of their provisions, but more skeptical of others.

“It was the first, and it has some very good features,” he said of Sens. Burns and Wyden’s CAN-SPAM Act, unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last week. The Burr bill, known as the Rid Spam Act, also has features that are workable, opined Thompson. The Wilson bill, called the Antispam Act and backed by four members of the House, he finds, “more focused and more positive for the FTC. It allows us flexibility as we see things morph.”

Thompson told internetnews.com he personally does not advocate the ADV: label on commercial e-mail, called for by the Burns/Wyden and Burr bills. He acknowledges a difference between commercial e-mail (a bank statement, for example) and messages with a primary advertising message.

Thompson is less supportive of the other anti-spam bills. Of the Hatch/Leahy Criminal Spam Act, he pointed out, “criminalization can be helpful, but it needs to be more comprehensive than that. How do the enforcers prioritize pursuing a spam case relative to terrorism or child molestation?” Of Sen. Chuck Schumer’s Spam Act, which calls for a national do-not-spam registry modeled after the legislation that curbs telemarketing, he opined, “I think spam is different than do-not-call. The telephone is point-to-point. E-mail identification, routing — the difference is huge. I’m not sure how practical it would be.”

Thompson also did not express optimism the “teenage bounty hunters” called for by Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s Reduce Spam Act would be an effective deterrent to unsolicited commercial e-mail.

During Thompson’s tenure, the FTC has spearheaded Washington’s anti-spam fervor. Thompson also discussed his efforts to fight spam beyond U.S. borders. He has been working with the 30-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to create international consumer anti-fraud regulations, particularly for Internet related fraud. Guidelines outlining a framework for cooperation were announced earlier this month.

To date, the FTC has prosecuted over 300 cases of Internet and online fraud. Thompson says the actions are not only to aid consumers, but to protect the information economy. “We’ve taken visible action,” he said. “We want to send the message this is a safe medium. We’re talking to companies about what their face to the world should be. How they use information is a proxy of their relationship with consumers.” When consumers suspect deception, “they won’t go to another site, they’ll go offline.”

As the FTC’s Internet Task Force continues its anti-spam crusade, broadcast media could be the next industry in the agency’s crosshairs, the commissioner implied.

“I suspect the FTC is going to be looking actively at relaxed media regulations in the wake of the FCC decision to relax media ownership laws,” he said.

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