Spam goes through Capitol mincer

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill vote one antispam bill out of committee and introduce a separate proposal to set lengthy prison terms for senders of bulk unsolicited mail.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
3 min read
Antispam sentiment on Capitol Hill spiked on Thursday, with one bill voted out of committee and another proposal introduced that would set lengthy prison terms for senders of junk mail.

By a voice vote, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the "Can-Spam Act," which would let federal regulators and Internet service providers sue spammers who use forged e-mail headers, who do not let recipients unsubscribe, or who send bulk messages to e-mail addresses obtained through crawling the Web.

Also on Thursday, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced the Criminal Spam Act (CSA), which would punish repeat spammers with up to five years in federal prison and fines of up to $25,000 a day.

These proposals mark Washington's growing determination to enact antispam laws in the near future. The CSA joins a crowded field of at least eight other proposals, each taking a different approach to the growing problem of unsolicited bulk e-mail that has roiled the Internet industry and driven many people and e-mail providers to distraction. While many states have enacted laws restricting unsolicited commercial e-mail, the U.S. Congress never has.

CSA "targets fraudulent and deceptive spam by enhancing the ability of federal law enforcement authorities to prosecute and punish the most egregious wrongdoers," Hatch said in a floor statement. In a separate statement, Leahy added: "The purpose of the (CSA) is to deter the most pernicious and unscrupulous types of spammers--those who use trickery and deception to induce others to relay and view their messages. Ridding America's in-boxes of deceptively delivered spam will significantly advance our fight against junk e-mail."

For its part, Can-Spam would jail spammers who access an Internet-connected computer "without authorization" and use it to send multiple commercial e-mail messages. A first offense would be punishable by up to three years in prison, and repeat offenders or people who are committing other crimes in the process could be punished by prison terms of up to five years.

Andrew Grosso, a former federal prosecutor who is now in private practice in Washington, says the bill is a "good first attempt" to quench the rising tide of spam. But by permitting Internet service providers or mail providers to define "authorization," he said it puts private companies in the business of deciding what's criminal or not. "You're basically going to let the ISPs define the crime."

Grosso also said the legislation does not take into account whether the recipient wants to receive the e-mail or not.

The competing proposals presage a political tussle between the sponsors of CSA and the Can-Spam Act over who will be able to take credit for enacting antispam legislation. Hatch and Leahy are senior members of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees criminal laws. But the Can-Spam bill is sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who serve on the Commerce Committee.

"I will continue working with Sen. Wyden and my other colleagues to get this legislation passed and help put an end to the burdens of spam once and for all," Burns said after the vote. Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's associate general counsel, said his company supported the Can-Spam proposal, as did Yahoo.

A second political battle is shaping up between the Senate and the House, which have different views on which antispam approach is best. After the Senate committee vote on Thursday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., circulated a press release that lauded the "Rid Spam Act," the House bill that he cosponsors. "We are committed to moving the Rid Spam Act through Congress this year," Tauzin's press release said.

Can-Spam specifics
If enacted, the Hatch-Leahy bill would:

• Require the U.S. Sentencing Commission to consider enhanced prison terms for spammers who harvest e-mail address from Web sites, who randomly generate e-mail addresses or who register a domain name using false information.

• Give the Justice Department and the State Department 18 months to report on "their efforts to achieve international cooperation in the investigation and prosecution of spammers who engage in conduct that violates this act."

• Permit the federal government to seize "any property"--both physical property and bank accounts--that is tied to or used in the illegal spamming.

• Permit the Justice Department or an Internet service provider to file civil suits for an "amount not exceeding $25,000 per day of violation, or not less than $2 or more than $8 per electronic mail message."