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State considers antispam bills

In California, two potentially groundbreaking antispam bills are making their way through the state legislature.

Just about every regular Net user has received some form of spam, whether it was a link to a porn site or a guarantee to get millions of visitors to a Web site. Most dislike it--but for now, one of the only solutions is the "Delete" key.

For California Netizens, however, that could change if two antispam bills make their way to the governor's office. If signed into law, the Golden State will be the first to hold spammers accountable for sending unsolicited junk email.

Today, the Assembly Consumer Protections Committee passed Assemblywoman Debra Bowen's (D-Marina del Rey) antispam bill, which would fine spammers $500 for each piece of email they send to a recipient who doesn't want it.

The bill is similar to an existing law that prohibits unsolicited faxes. It would expand that ban to include the transmission of unsolicited ads via email, with a few modifications.

Spammers would be required to include a toll-free telephone number and a valid email address in every message so recipients can ask to be removed from the list.

Some mass emailers already claim to do so, but links are sometimes bogus or are used as a method to gain even more information about recipients.

Some antispam groups say Bowen's opt-out method isn't 100 percent effective, however, and they are posing questions about several aspects of it--such as how it will be enforced and who will impose the fines.

"Those questions create a loophole you can drive a truck full of spam through," said John Mozena, cofounder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email.

Bowen staff members say they are currently tackling the questions.

Free speech advocates argue the bill also brings up important First Amendment issues. If passed, it could set the stage for further legislation to regulate the Net.

Mozena argued, however, that those concerns should not eliminate antispam bills as a whole.

His group publicly backs a bill by Assemblyman Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar), which would allow ISPs to sue spammers to recover losses or $50 per message--up to $15,000 per day--whichever amount is greater.

"I think it's a fairly exciting way of going about the problem," Mozena said. Under this bill, he added, spammers are free to send junk email, "but when someone says, 'Hey, I don't want you to use my hardware to transmit this,' you've got to abide."

The bill also would prohibit spam unless the sender has permission or an ongoing business or personal relationship with the recipient.

Like Bowen's bill, Miller's also would require the sender to identify him- or herself and include a valid return address.

Miller's bill is expected to be heard on March 31. Bowen's bill is on its way to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which will study its fiscal impact.

If either bill passes, it will likely set a precedent for other states that are grappling with the problem. Mozena says it also will send a strong message to spammers. "In a perfect world, they'd like to spam everybody, but I think they realize that's not going to happen," he said.