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Ad groups lobby for antispam law

Three influential trade groups are pushing Congress to pass a federal spam law before the holidays, cautioning that without it, unwanted e-mail will hamper e-commerce.

A triumvirate of influential advertising groups is pushing Congress to pass a federal spam law before the holidays, cautioning that without it, unwanted e-mail will hamper e-commerce.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA)--trade groups that together represent more than 6,000 companies--wrote an open letter to Congress in Thursday's edition of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newsletter.

The letter urged Congress to pass a federal antispam law to bring consistency to the fragmented antispam laws already on the books in 37 states and to pave the way for legitimate companies to continue communicating via e-mail with their customers.

"Immediate action is required to go after the bad guys on spam and avert a crisis that will bring legitimate electronic commerce to a screeching halt," according to the letter.

The trade groups' joint endeavor to lobby Congress signals new urgency among marketers to avert a spam crisis. Unwanted e-mail has become an epidemic, making up more than 50 percent of incoming e-mail in some cases. That's prompting consumers, corporations and state lawmakers to take strong measures to cope, including legislative talks of creating a national "do not spam" list. Marketers are concerned that such legislation could go too far and dampen their ability to effectively communicate with consumers via e-mail.

The stakes are high. About $16.6 billion of the annual $138 billion Internet commerce market will be driven by commercial e-mail in 2003, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited in the letter.

The AAAA, ANA and DMA already introduced e-mail guidelines to help jump-start some industry self-regulation and urge conformity for marketing tactics online. Independently, the DMA also has formed Operation Slam Spam, a group of members and industry leaders who will work with the FBI to identify and prosecute spammers.

In their letter to Congress, the groups promoted the passage of the Can-Spam Act or the Reduction in Distribution of Spam Act. Both permit marketers to send unsolicited bulk mail to any number of recipients, provided that the sender includes a way to be removed from future mailings and honors "opt out" requests. That idea has been criticized in the antispam community for granting tens of thousands of e-mail marketers the right to spam consumers repeatedly until they click on an "unsubscribe" link.

Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Calif., immediately criticized the group lobbying effort, saying it endorses legislation that preempts a stronger California law set to take effect Jan. 1, 2004.

California enacted antispam legislation in September with the stiffest penalties of all states. In essence the nation's first "opt-in" law, it requires advertisers to secure permission from a consumer before sending commercial e-mail. The law also lets citizens and ISPs (Internet service providers) seek civil damages of up to $1,000 per e-mail per customer and $1 million per mass mailing.

"Advertisers love the congressional bills because they don't can spam, they legalize it," Bowen said in a statement.

"There's nothing 'knee-jerk' about the California law," Bowen said. "It couldn't be clearer. If you want to e-mail an advertisement to someone you don't already have a business relationship with, you need to get their permission first. That's it. That's how it works nationwide for fax advertising, and that's how it's going to work for e-mail advertising in California come next year, unless Congress decides to keep doing the DMA's bidding."