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Spam keeps cookin'--despite new laws

Criminal laws "haven't done much to deter virus writers and hackers," a Justice Department prosecutor warns.

GAITHERSBURG, Md.--A U.S. Justice Department prosecutor warned Tuesday that a new spam law's criminal sanctions likely will not stem the flow of bulk solicitations that are flooding into e-mail in-boxes.

Criminal laws "haven't done much to deter virus writers and hackers," said Anthony Teelucksingh, an attorney in the Justice Department's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section.

Speaking at a one-day workshop convened here by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Teelucksingh said the government is "very interested" in prosecuting criminal spammers but also attempted to downplay expectations. "I don't think that criminal prosecutions, even that many of them, will put that big a dent" in spam, he said.

The first federal law regulating spam, called the Can-Spam Act, took effect Jan. 1. Instead of banning unwanted e-mail, Can-Spam instead laid down a complex set of rules--such as honoring unsubscribe requests--that spammers must follow.

Under Can-Spam, the Justice Department and federal prosecutors around the country can file criminal charges against the most egregious spammers who commit crimes such as falsifying headers, trying to mislead consumers, and using false information when buying a domain or signing up for a Web mail account.

While no criminal cases have been brought so far, U.S. attorneys "are very interested in pursuing cases under this new legislation as we are at Main Justice," Teelucksingh said, referring to the Justice Department's Washington, D.C., headquarters. He said he's already been fielding calls from prosecutors asking for advice.

Don Blumenthal, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and director of its Internet lab, echoed Teelucksingh's cautionary tone.

"Can-Spam is not going to solve the problem," Blumenthal told the roughly 100 workshop attendees. "I think I just stated the obvious there."

Blumenthal said that in the wake of Can-Spam, the FTC has begun to devote more energy to spam investigations. Until now, the FTC has used its decades-old power to file civil lawsuits against unfair and deceptive business practices in a series of suits first filed in 2002.

"Spam's going to rule our world in the near future," Blumenthal said.

Michelle O'Neill, deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, said she had been talking to her counterparts in other nations about what approach they should take.

O'Neill noted that the European Union had taken an "opt in" approach, while the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted for an "opt out" mechanism. Warning of overly aggressive regulation, O'Neill said that "we want to preserve the right for legitimate business interests to use the Internet."