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Internet

Spammers jump gun on legislation

Bulk emailers have started to tack disclaimers onto their spam, saying it complies with a new law--but the legislation has not yet passed.

A growing number of spammers have started using disclaimers that imply their mass emailings comply with a new law, the Consumer Antislamming Act. There's only one problem: The legislation is not yet law.

If nothing else, the disclaimers show that passing laws regulating Net activities is only half the battle. Getting out the right information on a medium known for its rumor and innuendo can prove to be tougher.

The proposed law would make it illegal for junk emailers to hide their identities. A version of it was passed by the Senate, but a House version still has several steps to take before it will even be considered by the full House.

Once that happens, the law isn't likely to see a presidential signature until October at the earliest, estimated Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana), chairman of the House subcommittee slated to mark up the proposed law Thursday.

Tauzin's office is trying to iron out the differences among lawmakers over the measure. Antispammers have denounced it, saying that in effect it makes spam legal because it states that there are only certain cases in which it is illegal. Even though the law calls for $15,000 fines, antispammers have spoken out against it, saying they fear it will do the opposite of what was intended.

In fact, they cite the spammers' disclaimers, such as one sent today in a piece of bulk email that said, "This message is sent in compliance of the new email bill: SECTION 301 Paragraph (a)(2)(c) of s. 1618."

While some disclaimers have been vague about the actual status of the bill, the implication clearly is that their actions are protected.

Edward Romanoff, who runs a company called Electronic Congress that he says is a membership organization, tacked on a disclaimer just in case the email he sent out fell into the hands of someone who considered it spam. Romanoff said he thought the proposed legislation had already been passed.

To Ray Everett-Church, a cofounder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), the practice shows how the bill, as currently written, could affect the Net.

"I think it really proves the point that CAUCE has been making since [the bill] was passed by the Senate and was taken up by the House," he said. "These pieces of legislation would, in fact, legalize large classes of spam. As long as you meet some minimal requirements of truthfulness in sending, you can operate under cover of law."

Tauzin spokesman Johnson said his office is doing its best to deal with those concerns: "There are ongoing discussions aimed at reaching a compromise that will ensure bipartisan support when we mark [the bill] up."

As far as the early disclaimers go, Johnson said they had to be taken in stride. "It's a little bit troubling, but that's one of the things you have to understand when you deal with Internet-related issues," he said. "The technology is moving at a much more rapid pace than regulatory oversight.

"Things tend to get said and written on the Internet that people take as gospel," Johnson added. "But on the flip side of it, this is a tremendous medium for getting information out quickly."