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States in high gear on antispam laws

As state antispam legislation proliferates, online marketers risk facing increasingly confusing legal terrain--and even antispam advocates are worried about the trend.

As state antispam legislation proliferates, online marketers risk facing increasingly confusing legal terrain--and even antispam advocates are worried about the trend.

The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) today warned that at least four new antispam statues coming down the pike spell trouble for legitimate online marketers.

"The idea of respecting 50 different state laws would be a bit daunting for marketers, even the ethical ones," said CAUCE board member John Mozena. "We don't want to stop online marketing. We just want to keep it from abusing consumers."

CAUCE advocates a single federal bill to outlaw spam. Congress has considered a number of antispam bills, but so far none has been signed into law.

"What we'd like is legislation that treats junk email like junk faxes, that is, if you send one to somebody with whom you don't have a pre-existing relationship, they can sue you for $500," said Mozena. CAUCE also advocates the creation of a single, nationwide database that users can add their names to in order to avoid spam.

The Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has indicated willingness to pass such legislation if antispam and marketing industry organizations can agree on language, Mozena said.

CAUCE listed four states that recently have introduced antispam legislation. They are:

• Texas, where the state senate is considering SB 106. The bill would outlaw unsolicited commercial email if the recipient or email provider incurred "a fee, expense, or other damages." It is the first bill that addresses the burden of cost-bearing directly, according to CAUCE.

• Washington state, where HB 1037 would broaden an existing law. Introduced in the state house of representatives on January 12, HB 1037 would criminalize violation of an Internet service provider's terms of service and allow a $50-per-message penalty. It also would establish a database registry of Washington residents' email addresses in order to assist email marketers in knowing to whom they may not send spam under the law.

• In Virginia, two statues are under consideration. In the state assembly, HB 1668 would require spam senders to include in their subject headers a tag like "ADV" or "ADVERTISEMENT," and provides for a per-recipient system of opting out of spam. The state senate is considering a bill that would prohibit forged headers in spam.

A Virginia governor's commission in December proposed a "Net policy act" that, among other provisions, would prosecute the sending of "fraudulent, unauthorized, or otherwise illegal" email.

• In Maryland, the general assembly is considering a bill that would bar sending spam if the terms of service of the sender's ISP forbade it.

And that's not all. Mozena said legislators from other states, including Wisconsin, Maine, Kentucky, and New Hampshire, have contacted his group about nascent antispam legislation. California and Nevada already have passed antispam laws.

Despite sounding the alarm about a looming tangle of conflicting state laws, CAUCE also is cheered by the trend.

"We do look at all this legislative activity as a good sign," Mozena said. "It means that legislators are listening to their constituents when they complain about abusive marketing tactics online. While things are moving very slowly in 'Internet time,' this is light-speed for legislators. We just started talking to legislators about this issue less than two years ago."