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Senate passes spam regulation

The bill, which now goes to the House for a vote, requires commercial emailers to accurately identify themselves and seeks to fine violators.

Junk emailers who try hide their identities could be fined up to $15,000 under a provision unanimously passed by the Senate late yesterday.

Better known as spam, unsolicited bulk email often arrives in Net users' mailboxes with a fake return address, a practice called "spoofing."

Companies and individuals whose email address is used without permission by spammers end up getting flooded with returned email. Spammers also frequently "hijack" the mail servers of other providers because most Internet service providers have strict policies against spamming.

As part of its High-Tech Week, the Senate See related story: 
Congress tackles high-tech issues cleared the Consumer Antislamming Act, which prohibits the unauthorized switching of consumers' telephone service providers. The bill also contained the so-called truth in advertising mandate for spammers.

Although antispammers say this piece of legislation is well-intentioned, they criticized it for not going far enough.

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The provision requires commercial emailers to accurately identify themselves, including their physical address and telephone number. It also requires spammers to honor requests from people who want to removed from bulk email lists. However, Internet access providers will not be held liable for junk emailers' actions under the bill, which now has to be approved by the House.

The amendment was drafted by Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey), who both introduced antispam legislation last year.

"Junk email has quickly become the scourge of the Internet," Murkowski stated when submitting the amendment. "Rural residents of our nation and my state of Alaska are forced to pay long distance charges to receive these unwanted solicitations, the majority of which contain fraudulent or pornographic messages. Under this provision, citizens will know exactly who the sender is and have the option of turning that sender away from their in-box."

The Federal Trade Commission has gone after some spammers for false advertising, but companies have increasingly turned to the courts to rid their networks of spam. Court cases are almost always successful, but the companies and other antispammers say they are not a solution. Instead, they have increasingly looked to lawmakers to pass legislation banning the practice of sending unsolicited commercial email.

The Murkowski-Torricelli amendment directs the FTC and state attorneys general to investigate and prosecute violators of the statute. Violators could be fined up to $15,000 for damages or costs to the ISP and recipient of the bulk email.

Though there are numerous state and federal bills on the table to curb spam, the Senate's move is the most wide-reaching effort yet.

But not all are happy with the provision. At least one ardently antispam group, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial (CAUCE), is calling for even stricter federal legislation to totally ban junk email.

CAUCE argues that the amendment lets spammers "get one free shot at sending their advertisements to Internet users" before those recipients can request to be removed from a bulk-emailing list.

"Since this bill legitimizes junk email, we can expect to see a lot of companies that had been held back by the string of court rulings that found spam to be analogous to trespassing starting to use junk email as a component of their marketing campaigns," CAUCE board member John Mozena said in a statement.

"Imagine what happens when every company that buys newspaper ads, that buys radio spots or direct postal mail, begins to spam," he added. "You'd never get yourself removed from every mailing list."

Others say the bill is a responsible and cautious first step toward limiting the damage spammers do to ISPs' networks.

"This bill narrowly targets unsolicited commercial email without harming free speech," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"This isn't the end-all and be-all regarding spam," she added. "This will set up some rules for people who send commercial email: that you can't be bypassing ISPs' filters or misroute email so that consumers can't ask to be [taken off a mailing list]."