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Lawmakers try new spam bill

New federal legislation could diminish the amount of spam Net users digest, but it also could force ISPs to maintain a list of customers who don't mind being spammed.

    New federal legislation could diminish the amount of spam Net users digest, but it also could force online service providers to maintain a list of customers who don't mind having their in-boxes stuffed with unsolicited email.

    After failing to get their spam bill passed last year, Sens. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) have rejoined the debate with the Inbox Privacy Act (S. 759).

    Many Net users hate spam, and ISPs say it burdens their networks. But because spammers often use fake email addresses, it's hard to get off their lists--and even harder to enforce laws against them as states with antispam laws are learning.

    The Inbox Privacy Act requires that email marketers include their correct name, physical address, Net address, and telephone number in all unsolicited bulk email they send.

    Also, consumers, domain name owners, and ISPs could post "no spam" notices and request to be taken off of commercial email lists, and those requests would have to be honored.

    "The most significant difference between this legislation and [last year's] is the addition of a domain-wide opt-out system that allows Internet domain owners to put up an electronic 'stop sign' to signify their desire to not receive unsolicited commercial email to addresses served by their domain," Murkowski said in a statement. "However, to ensure that the Internet consumer has the ultimate choice, consumers would be able to inform their ISP of their continuing desire to receive junk email."

    In other words, the bill would allow access providers to reject all spam and then let customers "opt-in" to get the messages.

    "Any customer of an Internet service provider?may elect to continue to receive transmissions of unsolicited commercial electronic mail," the bill states. "An Internet service provider or interactive computer service provider shall maintain a list of each of its current customers who have made an election?and make such list available to the public."

    But the provision is drawing some fire.

    Junk email foes say the legislation puts ISPs in the position of creating email marketing lists, and registering "opt-in" customers with the Federal Trade Commission, which under the bill would publish links to the lists on its Web site.

    "We are pleased that the bill recognizes the role of domain operators in setting policies for their networks," Ray Everett-Church, an attorney for the Coaliton Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE), said in a statement.

    "But if a service provider wishes to avail themselves of the limited protections under the bill, they must relinquish substantial rights in setting system policies," he added. "That fact will make this bill unacceptable to most service providers."

    Observers say the "opt-in" list was added to the bill to balance First Amendment protections. Many antispam bills failed to clear last Congress, and some were particularly criticized as hindrances on speech.

    "The concern is that the government is stepping in and restricting the flow of information without giving people a choice," said Ian Oxman, president of ChooseYourMail, a service that lets consumers elect to get commercial email.

    Oxman said ISPs would likely oppose the bill for putting administrative burdens on their shoulders.

    "We work with ISPs--at this point I haven't found any who support it," he added.