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Congressional spam bill due today

Republican Heather Wilson's bill would have the FCC create and maintain the list of those who don't want to receive unsolicited email and punish proven "spammers."

The U.S. House of Representatives today will begin consideration of a bill that would create a nationwide list of people who do not want to receive junk email, known in Internet parlance as "spam."

The Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act of 1999, written and cosponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico), would have the Federal Communications Commission create and maintain the list and would penalize those who send unsolicited messages to email account holders who have added their names to it.

Under this so-called opt-out system, spam recipients who have been on the list for 30 days could sue for $500 per piece of spam sent to them. Defendants found by a court to have "willingly or knowingly" violated an FCC order to stop sending spam could be fined three times that amount.

Considered by some to be long overdue, the proposed legislation addresses a phenomenon often thought to be one of the Internet's worst features. Each month, uncounted numbers of unsolicited advertisements are sent to millions of users, filling in-boxes and taxing email servers with generally unwanted pitches. But some contend the measure doesn't go far enough, even though it appears to skirt the edge of restricting commercial speech.

The bill also would criminalize the sending of mail without a valid return address identifying where a recipient can send mail asking not to be sent more spam. Many spammers falsify their return addresses so they cannot be traced.

In addition, the bill would let Internet service providers opt out of transmitting spam, either on the sending or the receiving end. The bill also would let ISPs charge spammers to cover the costs of transmitting the spam.

Violations of the ISP provisions would result in $500-per-instance fines.

Wilson said her bill strikes a balance between the interests of senders of unsolicited commercial email on the one hand and its recipients and their Internet service providers on the other.

"It puts the power in the hands of the recipient," Wilson said in an interview with CNET News.com. "But the idea here is you don't ban commercial email, you don't restrict freedom of speech, and ISPs shouldn't be required to carry [spam] without compensation."

Opt-out systems have drawn fire from anti-spam groups, which favor laws that ban sending spam outright. Some prefer a so-called opt-in system, in which senders of commercial mail cannot send spam unless the recipient has asked to receive such mailings first.

Anti-spam groups object in particular to the creation of an FCC-maintained list of email account holders.

"We're concerned about this bill because it gives the FCC a whole bunch of regulatory authority, including the duty of maintaining a list of everyone in the U.S. that doesn't want junk email," said John Mozena, head of the Committee Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE). "That scares us. And ISPs in general don't want to deal with the FCC."

Wilson scoffed at concerns about the FCC list, noting that the postal service for decades has maintained a similar opt-out list for postal commercial mail.

Wilson criticized a competing House bill that would ban spam altogether.

"I think there's value in getting unsolicited commercial email and using the Internet for commerce, just like I like getting a catalog in the mail I didn't ask for," Wilson said. "It's true that ISPs and their advocacy groups would rather have an outright prohibition, but I don't think that would withstand a constitutional challenge on basis of free speech."

Congress has been slow to pass any spam legislation, and so far individual states have taken the lead on the matter. Wilson's penalties would be "in addition to and not in lieu of any other provision of state law relating to the transmission of electronic mail messages," according to a copy of the bill obtained by CNET News.com.

Despite federal lawmakers' lagging on spam legislation so far, Wilson sounded bullish on her bill's prospects. She cited her seat on the powerful Commerce Committee, as well as bipartisan sponsorship of the bill, as augurs for its success. Rep. Gene Greene (D-Texas) is a cosponsor.

The bill's introduction will come on the heels of a survey showing consumer support for governmental regulation of spam. According to the survey, 76 percent of respondents think the government should regulate spam "in some way." About the same proportion said fraudulent return addresses should be made illegal, and valid contact information should be required. About 67 percent said ISPs should be able to refuse to send or deliver spam.

The survey is published by CAUCE and Survey.com under their joint venture the UCE Research Initiative.