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Antislamming act draws fire

A House Commerce subcommittee approves the Consumer Antislamming Act, but antispammers contend the act legitimizes spam.

A House Commerce subcommittee today approved by voice vote the Consumer Antislamming Act, containing controversial provisions aimed at protecting Net users from junk email that antispammers say actually legitimize spam.

The bulk of the proposed law addresses "slamming," the reviled practice of switching a customer's telephone service provider without authorization. But it also would make it illegal for junk emailers to hide their identities and would impose a fine of up to $15,000 for using fake return email addresses.

Antispammers claim the bill stands to make it easier for spammers to send mass unsolicited email by outlining circumstances in which it could be sent legitimately--namely, if the sender is properly identified and the email is labeled as spam.

Many Net users have long complained that spam clogs their email in-boxes and Internet service providers say it costs them millions of dollars in time and resources, such as needing extra servers to deal with the huge influx of email.

In other words, antispammers and ISPs claim sending spam is akin to stealing resources, since spammers don't pay for postage the way real-world junk mailers do. But spammers have said they are willing to pay something for the right to send their bulk email and have contended that email is a legitimate way to advertise.

Today's move brings the act a step closer to becoming law. While the spamming provision of the law has been controversial from the beginning, the gist of the act, dealing with "slamming," faces less opposition.

A version of the bill already was passed by the Senate and next will be considered by the full House Commerce Committee, which will meet after Congress returns to Washington in September.

From there, it will go to the full House for a vote, where it is likely to be passed.

The act today also contained a new provision that called for the "grandfathering" of the two existing antispam state laws in Washington and Nevada. Although those laws would remain in effect, all other new state laws, several of which are making their way through the legislative process, would be disqualified.

Rep. Rick White (R-Washington) also introduced and then withdrew an amendment aimed to protect ISPs from having to carry unsolicited bulk email. Specifically, it stated that an ISP will still have the right to "protect its network facilities from being used in the transmission or distribution of unauthorized unsolicited commercial electronic mail."

It also would protect ISPs from being forced to deliver spam messages. That section of the amendment would ensure ISPs' right to filter their mail to weed out junk email.

Although White withdrew the amendment, members will consider provisions in it and change the legislation accordingly before it goes to full committee, said Peter Schalestock, a spokesman for White.

Antispammers are strongly opposed to the bill as it reads now.

"We're very disappointed," said Ray Everett-Church, a cofounder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. "The members today had a lot of good words for the plight of consumers and Internet service providers, but the bill referred to the full Commerce Committee does very little to lessen harm done to ISPs and to users."

As it reads now, Everett-Church says the bill "perpetuates the shifting of cost and places the burden of handling spam squarely on ISPs through the filtering process," which he said is very expensive.