It doesn't matter that scores of Net users hate spam--it's still clogging their email in-boxes and the congressional schedule.
Today, yet another federal hearing was held on the perils of unsolicited bulk email. This time, the Senate subcommittee on communications examined the magnitude of spam on the Net, as well as the costs absorbed by online users and access providers who unintentionally receive or transfer these mass emailings.
There are a handful of bills before Congress to limit or eliminate spam, although none have passed. However, today lawmakers told the committee that they are making progress in their quest to curb junk email.
Sens. Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) and Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) touted their spam amendment passed by the Senate last month as part of the Consumer Antislamming Act, which prohibits the unauthorized switching of consumers' telephone service providers.
"Our measure will weed out the bad actors of the Internet by requiring identification of online marketers as well as requiring that 'remove' requests are honored," Murkowski told the committee.
Junk emailers who try hide their identities could be fined up to $15,000 under the provision. The bill also makes it a illegal to "spoof" Net users by sending bulk email with a fake return address, or to "hijack" ISPs' mail servers to send spam.
The amendment requires commercial emailers to accurately identify themselves, including their physical address and telephone number. If passed, spammers also would have to honor requests from people who want to be removed from bulk email lists.
"For some in the Internet community, our solution does not go far enough. They propose an outright ban on unsolicited email," he added. "I believe such a ban would establish a dangerous precedent and would erode the protections of the First Amendment."
Along with testimony by Federal Trade Commissioner Sheila Foster-Anthony, the senators also called for Congress to give the agency broader authority to crack down on spammers--which is part of the Murkowski-Torricelli amendment.
The agency has gone after bulk emailers who allegedly pushed fraudulent or deceptive claims. Many spammers don't promote such schemes, but some push pornographic services or advertisements for other bulk email services.
"The commission still believes that economic issues related to the development and growth of electronic commerce should be left to industry, consumers, and the marketplace to resolve," Anthony said in testimony.
"For problems involving deception and fraud, however, the commission is committed to law enforcement as a necessary response," she added. "Should the Congress enact legislation granting the commission new authority to combat deceptive unsolicited commercial email, the commission will act carefully but swiftly to use it."
The House subcommittee on telecommunications will take up the slamming bill next Tuesday, which includes the spam amendment.
Some advocates say the Murkowski-Torricelli amendment is the best policy offered so far because it doesn't hinder speech by prohibiting people from sending bulk email.
"This legislation is like a sunshine act requirement that you have to identify yourself and let people reply to you," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, who has worked with industry and policy makers to find a solution to the spam problem.
"The administrative costs of maintaining a 'remove' list might not make it worth it to send [spam]," she added. "If we can change the behavior without banning speech, then that is a preferable approach."
However, many antispam groups say the Murkowski-Torricelli amendment doesn't go far enough.
Antispammers have strongly denounced the provision, saying it actually could have the opposite effect it intends. Instead of deterring spam, they say it could legitimize and encourage junk email because it states that junk email could be sent as long as it is properly labeled and as long as the sender honors requests--after the fact--to be removed from a list.
Instead, these groups, such as Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial (CAUCE), have thrown their support to Rep. Chris Smith's (R-New Jersey) Netizens Protection Act, which completely bans spam by updating the federal junk fax law.
"The [Murkowski-Torricelli] legislation would allow marketers to indiscriminately send massive volumes of email with no recourse for the victim other than begging to be taken off the list," testified Ray Everett-Church, cofounder of CAUCE. "By setting such a low threshold for legitimacy, we fear it would allow for increasing volumes of junk email."
On the other hand, he said, "The [Smith] bill is a model of logic and simplicity. It assures that those who wish to receive such mass mailings can continue to do so by simply asking, while those who do not want them, will not get them, or will have a legal remedy if they do."
Even former spammer Sanford Wallace, once referred to as the king of spam, now supports the Smith bill, saying it is the best solution to curb junk email.
While antispammers are focusing on passage of a federal law curbing spam, they also are pushing for local laws to address the problem.