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Microsoft takes spam plan to Washington

Chairman Bill Gates writes a letter advocating a combination of law and self-regulation by the industry to stop unwanted e-mail.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates weighed in on the spam debate for a congressional hearing Wednesday, outlining in a letter the legal measures he believes are necessary to stop junk e-mail.

"The torrent of unwanted, unsolicited, often offensive and sometimes fraudulent e-mail is eroding trust in technology, costing business billions of dollars a year, and decreasing our collective ability to realize technology's full potential," Gates wrote to Sens. John McCain and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Gates said a multifaceted approach, including industry self-regulation and legislation, are needed to lessen the scourge of junk e-mail.

Specifically, he proposed that Congress back a "trusted seal" program that would require senders to identify themselves and adhere to a set of industry guidelines, or else have their e-mail filtered. The concept has been discussed before, but Microsoft's plan would allow marketers that abide by the rules to get around using an "ADV" (short for advertisement) tag within a message's subject line. Use of the tag is a common tenet of many state laws and bills.

Wednesday's hearing included testimony from the likes of America Online, the Network Advertising Initiative and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The hearing furthered discussions that had begun at a three-day congressional summit on spam in April. It also reinforced a government mandate to pass some kind of spam law that makes sense for consumers and Internet players.

Lawmakers, Internet service providers (ISPs), marketers and consumer advocates are all bent on finding means to mitigate unwanted e-mail, but differing opinions on how to do so threatens immediate action. In the six years since the first federal antispam bill was proposed, multiple bills have stalled in Congress for lack of consensus. Legislators are tackling the issue with new vigor this year.

"After the FTC (spam) conference in April, it became clear there were many voices speaking out with opinions in the fight against spam," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., at the hearing. He recently re-introduced a bill, now called the Can-Spam Act of 2003, with Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "There is an overwhelming cry for something to be done about spam, and I believe legislation is key in this effort."

Enrique Salem, CEO of spam-filtering company Brightmail, said it seems clear that members of Congress are determined to pass legislation this year. Salem recalled that Sen. McCain said he wanted to get a bill to the Senate floor by the end of the summer session. Still, the industry and lawmakers need to determine who are the trusted, legitimate e-mailers, and how to regulate them.

"There will be federal legislation coming, and when it does happen, it will create one standard for how you prosecute spammers," he said. "Thirty states have legislation today, but they're all different. If we get federal law, we'll have consistency."

Salem said Microsoft's proposal was entered into the record and panelists were asked to review it and respond to the committee. He said the Burns-Wyden bill is on the right road to finding solutions, including requiring e-mailers to let consumers opt out of communications and giving ISPs and federal agencies the ability to pursue spammers.

Microsoft's proposal is similar to bills from members of Congress, and it mirrors some industry self-regulation plans, including one proposed by e-mail marketers. In another antispam move, Microsoft joined with America Online and Yahoo in April to sketch a broad outline calling for technical changes to e-mail.

Spam has become the white elephant of the public and businesses as it has grown to overpower legitimate e-mail in the last year. According to industry estimates, spam comprises more than 50 percent of all e-mail.

Gates said that Microsoft supports the establishment of a global, independent trust authority to initiate and regulate a set of best practices. The rules should be governed by the global authority, but overseen by the FTC, according to Microsoft's plan. The software giant also backs a law that would require all unsolicited e-mail to be labeled "ADV" in the subject line.

Microsoft is planning an event next week in Silicon Valley to discuss its efforts against spam, including new technology and lobbying efforts.

The proposal on Wednesday coincides with a flurry of activity in Congress and the tech industry to fight spam.

Federal and state law-enforcement agencies last week pledged to take an aggressive new approach to stop spam by identifying "open relay" mail servers that serve as conduits for massive quantities of junk e-mail. The agencies sent letters to thousands of outlets that may be vulnerable to manipulation by spammers.

ISPs Microsoft, AOL and EarthLink have also filed dozens of lawsuits against junk mailers with some success. And the Federal Trade Commission and many state attorneys general are digging their heels in against people using e-mail to peddle scams.