Senators push for anti-spyware law

Last year's attempt to enact an anti-spyware law failed. This time may be different--but does it matter?

Congress didn't quite get around to approving an anti-spyware bill last year--it died while awaiting a Senate floor vote.

Now members of the Senate Commerce Committee are promising to avoid a repeat of last year's lapse. During a hearing Wednesday, politicians said spyware was a growing threat that required prompt action by Congress.

These are "insidious programs that install themselves on users' computers," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "It's hard to use analogies with this, but it's sort of like somebody walking around your house, kind of invisibly."

Boxer acknowledged that the Federal Trade Commission already has been suing alleged spyware distributors, but said: "I think we have to do more than that. Clearly it's still going on, even though there have been lawsuits filed."

It's not clear, though, how much a new federal law can accomplish. The Can-Spam Act of 2003 hasn't exactly eliminated junk e-mail so far, and both the FTC and the Justice Department say they already have the power to investigate and punish the worst offenders. Also, no U.S. law can hope to reach offshore Web sites.

"The last major effort we made was with respect to spam, and this is a much more serious problem," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "With spam you can hit the delete button. With this stuff it crashes your system."

If a federal spyware measure does clear Congress this year, technology and advertising companies are hoping to ensure that it will pre-empt state laws and set a uniform national rule.

"A national platform for legitimate businesses to work from" is necessary, Trevor Hughes of the Network Advertising Initiative--a consortium of large Internet advertisers--told the Senate panel on Wednesday. "Any legislation must be focused on the behavior of spyware, and that is fraud and deception."

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