Stiff spam penalties urged

Spammers could face harsh sentences under newly finalized government guidelines for the Can-Spam Act. Civil libertarians protest.

Paul Festa
Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Spammers convicted under a recently enacted national antispam law could face stiff sentences under newly finalized government recommendations.

The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) said Tuesday that it sent Congress sentencing guidelines for the "="" data-asset-type="article" data-uuid="bb4ebad9-fedd-11e4-bddd-d4ae52e62bcc" data-slug="legal-experts-urge-spam-leniency" data-link-text="some criminal defense lawyers and civil libertarians">, who warned it could make spam sentences disproportionately harsh.

"Congress made it a felony, but it's not the kind of misconduct that causes what we typically consider as harm to victims," said Jack King, a representative for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The whole idea behind the federal sentencing guidelines was to make the punishment fit the crime. But this is just junk mail. This doesn't even kill trees."

Representatives for the USSC were not immediately available for comment.

Spam may not kill trees, but its opponents argue that junk e-mail is swallowing up oceans of people's time and corporate profits. As an early spam outbreak marked its 10th anniversary this week, one analyst estimated that dealing with spam cost the world $20 billion in information technology spending and lost productivity on a yearly basis.

Major e-mail providers America Online, EarthLink, Yahoo and Microsoft last month filed six federal suits against people they accused of sending hundreds of millions of junk e-mails to their subscribers and account holders.

Most of Can-Spam's critics complain that the law doesn't do enough to curb spam, saying that it legitimizes junk e-mail by spelling out how people can send it within the law.

Critics of the sentencing commission's fraud analogy argue that not only will those who are convicted under the statute face disproportionate sentences, but also that spam trial courtrooms will become the scenes of baroque and contentious loss calculations.

"Because loss is a very difficult area to determine, the prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges are going to be spending more time and energy to resolve the appropriate calculations," warned Eric Goldman, an assistant professor at Marquette University Law School. "How are you going to measure loss here? What's appropriately counted as a loss? The sentences can grow very rapidly along with the loss calculations."

Congress has until Nov. 1 to amend the guidelines before they become law.