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Spam fight spreads to new fronts

From antispam legislation to Net crimes, email increasingly is at the center of online regulatory debates and legal test cases.

From antispam legislation to Net crimes, email increasingly is at the center of online regulatory debates and legal test cases.

This month alone, lawmakers in two states have introduced bills to ban or limit the distribution of unsolicited bulk email. In addition, the closely watched retrial of a Los Angeles man who allegedly sent a racist death threat over email to 59 people, most of whom were Asian, begins next week.

As email usage grows, not only lawyers but also lawmakers find themselves dealing with complaints about its abuse.

In the state of Washington, the legislature is considering a bill similar to one in Ohio that would prohibit selling products, pitching get-rich-quick schemes, or advertising online pornography using email. In California, two bills already have been introduced this month to curb spam, a reflection of many Net users' extreme distaste for junk email.

Although courts have ruled otherwise, spammers still say they have a First Amendment right to send their emails and vow to continue doing so.

On January 14, Democratic California Assemblywoman Debra Bowen introduced legislation that would require spammers to provide a toll-free phone number and return email address to recipients so they can ask to be taken off a junk-emailer's list. Failure to comply would result in a $500 fine per violation if the bill becomes law.

Bowen's move follows another state lawmaker who is seeking passage of the Internet Consumer Protection Act, a bill intended to bar companies from sending unsolicited email to any Californian. Democratic Assemblyman Gary G. Miller modeled his legislation after a federal bill, the Netizens Protection Act. (See related story)

Regulatory and legal debates about spamming are not new. But a case unfolding in Los Angeles next week brings up other legal issues, such as whether a threat made over the Net carries the same impact and weight as one made through other media. Some say this case could mark the first federal prosecution of so-called hate crimes on the Net.

The court will have to consider whether Richard Machado, a former University of California at Irvine student, meant what he said when he allegedly sent an email message to 59 students in 1996, stating "I personally will make it my life career to find and kill everyone of you personally." The email, sent from a campus computer, allegedly was signed "Asian Hater."

Machado has been charged with ten counts of civil rights violations and could spend up to ten years in prison if he is convicted. In November, a mistrial was declared after the jury reached a deadlock. This time around, Machado's lawyers will try to convince the new jury that his act was a harmless prank.

"To the extent that someone just makes general derogatory comments, which are about another race or gender, that is protected speech. If you make a threat to specific person, then that is not protected, but that line is difficult to draw," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Ultimately, what it comes down to is whether it was an immenent threat to commit a violent or illegal act."

But the Net adds new factors for a jury to consider in such a case, Steinhardt added. "The Internet changes some of this dynamic because it so much easier to communicate with people who are great geographic distances away," he said. "Also, there is certainly is a lot of hostile speech on the Net, but most of it is protected speech. The question is whether you have the ability to carry out that threat."