Regulators should have clear power to bust spammers who use fake return addresses, states a report delivered to the Federal Trade Commission today by a broad voluntary coalition.
The commission requested the report last summer during its hearings about the perils of spam and online privacy. Led by the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Ad-hoc Working Group on Unsolicited Commercial Email was formed and includes more than 40 diverse entities, including America Online, the Direct Marketing Association, antispam groups such as CAUCE, and former "spam king" Sanford Wallace.
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Many senders of unsolicited commercial email use fake return addresses, otherwise known as forged headers. When recipients try to respond to spam, the messages often bounce back to an unassuming Net access provider, clogging up the ISP's system.
Forged headers also make it difficult to identify senders of allegedly fraudulent or deceptive spam, a practice on which the FTC has been cracking down.
"Technical measures and public policies should be pursued that prevent and/or prohibit the use of fraudulent headers to send unsolicited commercial email messages," states the report.
"While filtering enabled by accurate headers, and potentially other information identifying unsolicited commercial email, will help users and service providers minimize some of the costs associated with processing, storing, and reading unsolicited commercial email, the current cost structure of the email system does not allocate costs in a way that reflects resource usage," it continues. "A failure to address cost-shifting will leave a central consumer and service provider concern unaddressed."
In May, the Senate unanimously passed a provision that would fine junk emailers up to $15,000 if they hid their identities with forged headers. The provision was part of the Consumer Antislamming Act, which prohibits the unauthorized switching of consumers' telephone service providers, and is now under consideration by the House. Staffers for Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey), who coauthored the provision, also sit on the FTC working group. The amendment would give the FTC broader authority to go after spammers who use forged headers.
"If the FTC doesn't believe it has the authority to address this, we need to make sure it does," said Deirdre Mulligan, the CDT's staff counsel, who wrote the report.
"For companies with well-known brands, the 1 percent return [from spam] often isn't a good deal, and they are not going to use unsolicited advertising because it could be a damaging business practice," she added. "But if you actually look at unsolicited commercial emails, they are sent by companies that are fly-by-night, offering pyramid schemes and get-quick-rich deals. They aren't always legitimate businesses."
The report reviews a handful of legislative proposals to mandate the accurate labeling of spam and correct header information or to ban spam altogether.
A prohibition on spam, as proposed by Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), could violate free speech, the report states. The working group's recommendations seem to favor the "truth in advertising" approach outlined in the so-called slamming bill.
Although the working group's report encourages ISPs and Net users to employ filters, it also says that when it comes to spam, self-regulatory policies and filtering tools are not enough to control the problem. ISPs and Net users need more help from regulators in protecting their networks and email in-boxes from loads of unsolicited email.
"Overall, technology provides some useful tools for addressing unsolicited commercial email, but currently the tools may require some tailoring and regular upgrades," the report states. "The interaction of legislative proposals that require accuracy, domain name verification technology, and heuristic filters hold promise for more consistent and effective filtering."
Major email providers such as AOL and Hotmail have sued spammers for "trespassing" on their networks, and have managed to have some bulk emailers banned from their services. But for consumers, litigation is not a realistic option to deter spam, the report states.
"Although some service providers have gained temporary relief from unsolicited commercial email [UCE] through litigation, such lawsuits are time-consuming and resource-intensive," the report states. "Despite some service providers' best efforts to litigate UCE off the Internet, some senders of UCE are quick to target other service providers when faced with a judgment forbidding them from targeting a specific provider."
The FTC has been ramping up its consumer education on the spam front. Today it released a "dirty dozen" list of the top "spam scams" being sent around the Net. And, the FTC also has created its own Web sites that lure consumers in with get-rich-quick offers, but then within a few clicks explains the dangers of pursuing these often shady business opportunities.
Still, the report encourages further study of the issue. "Relevant standard setting bodies [should] continue to search for technical standards and specifications that will: assist users in controlling incoming email; more fairly allocate the costs of unsolicited commercial email; and ease the burden unsolicited commercial email places on the network."
Some vigilant antispam activists praised the report for encouraging increased government efforts to eliminate inaccurate or misleading spam header information.
"Once any government agency establishes its authority with a successful prosecution of fake headers or return addresses, spammers will be have to choose between the devil and the blue sea: either they identify themselves to their spammers and accept massive retaliation, or they risk having the feds after them," said Jason Catlett, founder of Junkbusters.
"My guess is that many would give up spamming, which is what everyone wants," he added.
But Catlett said the report's comments about the value of filters should be taken with caution.
"I didn't like all this stress on filters and giving people choice because filters have a downside," he said. "They are never perfect and you're going to lose email you want if you use them."