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Direct marketers want anti-spam laws

In a surprising reversal, the Direct Marketing Association says it won't oppose anti-spam laws. In fact, the group will begin lobbying for them.

The Direct Marketing Association said Monday that unsolicited e-mail has become so noxious that a federal anti-spam law is finally necessary.

Until now, the DMA has opposed the majority of anti-spam bills in Congress or offered only lukewarm support. But the ever-rising tide of junk e-mail has made the influential trade association rethink its stand.

"Even legitimate business' messages are not being looked at because of the get-rich-quick schemes and pornography and so forth," Jerry Cerasale, the DMA's vice president for government affairs, said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon.

The DMA's change of heart, which comes as the group meets in San Francisco for its 85th annual convention this week, means that a sizable obstacle to federal legislation has vanished. The DMA, along with its allies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation, have previously scuttled some anti-spam laws from being enacted by Congress.

"We absolutely need legislation," Cerasale said. "So we're going to have to work to get a compromise that'll have enough support so it will pass."

The DMA told the Senate Commerce committee in April 2001 that a law governing spam might not be objectionable if it overruled about 20 state laws currently on the books and prohibited only "the practice of sending fraudulent electronic mail messages" with forged headers.

Now the association, which boasts about 4,700 members that include direct mail, catalog and telemarketing companies, says it will lobby for legislation that has both of those requirements and also provides a way for recipients to remove themselves from future mailings. "We're finding that we need to give the consumers the choice to try and allow them to control their inbox, to try and say no, I don't want this, while leaving the medium open for commerce," Cerasale said.

But, Cerasale said, a federal requirement that consumers "opt in" instead of "opt out" of bulk e-mail is unacceptable. "We think the opt-in creates a true noneconomic model," Cerasale said. "We don't believe you get a viable economic model in opt-in."

Ray Everett-Church, who represents the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) and other tech clients, says he's taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The fact that they are realizing that self-regulation hasn't solved the problem is a very important step," Everett-Church said. "It marks a welcome change in their thinking. But the folks in the anti-spam community are waiting to see what the DMA defines as acceptable under any proposed legislation."

Taking steps to can spam
In September, three consumer groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to take swift steps to stanch the flow of bulk e-mail.

The DMA opposed the suggested rules as overly intrusive, and the American Civil Liberties Union said the rules would be unconstitutional if adopted by the FTC. "Self-regulation is the way to go in terms of preserving First Amendment rights and, at the same time, making sure that frauds are not perpetrated," DMA Vice President Jim Conway told CNET at the time.

Around the same time, however, the DMA and companies including AOL Time Warner and Verizon Communications began meeting in private to figure out if new laws were necessary.

Because Congress has adjourned until after the November elections, there's scant time left this year to enact an anti-spam law, meaning the legislative push would have to wait until the new Congress convenes in 2003.

If the DMA does start lobbying, Everett-Church says the big question will be the wording of the final bill: "The question is how are they going to define spam and solve the problem in a way that actually makes a difference to consumers' mailboxes?"