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Congress considers two spam fixes

Two takes on the junk email question are being presented to Congress.

Spam is clogging Congress's agenda today.

Two separate bills were introduced, both with the intent of helping reduce the volume of unwanted junk email.

Rep. Chris Smith's (R-New Jersey) is pushing legislation to ban commercial spam by amending the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991. The federal law prohibits junk marketing faxes because they clog machines and are costly for recipients. Smith's bill would extend that law to cover junk email but would "protect" communications between people who have existing business or personal relationships.

While the Hill has been expecting Smith's bill, Sen. Frank Murkowski's (R-Alaska) surprised Congress today with the introduction of the Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Choice Act. This second bill would not prohibit spam outright but would require senders to label emails as advertisements.

If the bill is passed, Internet service providers across the country will also have to take it on themselves to screen all unsolicited messages for customers that ask them to do so; if an ISP doesn't comply, it could cost up to a $11,000 in fines per offense.

Hardly anything makes Net users as mad as spam.

"People have been complaining that they have received between two and ten pieces of junk email in their boxes every day. That takes up time on their phone line, costs people more money if they pay for [Net access] per minute, and it's a waste of time to sift through all that junk," said Rep. Smith's press secretary, Ken Wolfe.

But despite the fact that nobody seems to like it, spam has proved a profitable business. And Smith's bill will face strong opposition from companies like the infamous spam king CyberPromotions.

On top of that, free-speech advocates are also wary of laws that ban any form of online communication, even the dreaded spam.

And lastly, Sen. Murkowski is now fighting the Smith-sponsored bill in favor of his own. "The Internet is about choices, not outright bans. I do not want to set a precedent in banning commercial speech on the Internet."

For obvious reasons, the president of CyberPromotions, Sanford (a.k.a Spamford) Wallace, favors Murkowski's effort.

"As long as the decision is the end-user's, not the service providers making a decision for the end-user, we would probably support such a bill," he said. "We are planning on fighting the [Smith] bill."

Wallace's basic problem with the Smith bill is that it unfairly equates faxes with email.

"Email doesn't use the recipients' paper and ink unless they choose to print it out, unlike faxes," he added. "Plus, an unsolicited fax ties up the telephone line and doesn't allow another fax to be sent in. You can receive many different emails simultaneously without tying up your line."

But even if the bill passes, Wallace says Cyber Promotions, which has already been sued by almost every major online service provider, will keep spamming.

"If it passes, we are already starting to develop Plan B, which is sending email to only those people who request information from us," said Wallace.

But spam's major foes say Smith's bill has the teeth they've been looking for in legislation.

"Spam is also giving Internet commerce a bad name. Users are afraid to give their email addresses or other personal information to anyone, and that spells trouble for legitimate businesses and advertisers," said Dan Birchall, a webmaster who supports the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email .

"I feel that Smith correctly recognizes spam as something that is in opposition to truly free speech and commerce, and just as much a nuisance in the "paperless office" as junk faxes were in traditional offices." he added.