Senate Unanimously Approves Anti-Spam Bill, but Hurdles Remain

The Senate’s “Can Spam” Act of 2003 authorizes the Federal Trade Commission to create a Do-Not-Spam registry for e-mail users to avoid getting Internet advertisements, similar to the popular Do-Not-Call registry signed into law by President George Bush in September.

The anti-spam bill also prohibits senders of marketing e-mails from selling phony products, and deceiving consumers by disguising their identities or using misleading subject lines. Penalties include fines of up to $1 million and up to five years in jail. The bill also requires labels for adult-content messages.

The Senate action comes as a new study released Wednesday from Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 75 percent of American e-mail users were extremely “bothered” by their inability to stop the flow of unwanted e-mail solicitations offering everything from pornography and drugs to body-enhancement products. One-fourth of those surveyed said they were so annoyed they were using e-mail less and less.

“People just love e-mail, and it really bothers them that spam is ruining such a good thing,” Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the study, said in a press statement. “People resent spam’s intrusions; they are angered by its deceptions; and they are offended by much of the truly disgusting content.”

Junk e-mail accounts for nearly half of all e-mail traffic and costs U.S. businesses an estimated $10 billion this year in lost resources, new software and productivity, according to Ferris Research, an industry research firm.

“Americans are tired of watching and fretting over inboxes clogged with offensive e-mail,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who cosponsored the bill with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont), said. “This legislation is an important step toward giving consumers more control.”

However, similar legislation in the House has stalled, as lawmakers continue to debate two competing bills, making it unlikely for the House to pass an anti-spam bill this year.

The anti-spam measure faces further challenges, industry experts say, since it would be difficult to force spammers, many of whom live overseas, to respect the U.S. restrictions. Additionally, spammers can be particularly hard to track down because many use stolen or bogus e-mail addresses to send out millions of spam messages.

Some 75 percent of American e-mail users say they want a federal no-spam registry, according to a survey by the online market research firm InsightExpress. But industry experts, as well as the FTC commissioner, have expressed little confidence that such a registry could work.

“In terms of a general concept, we think the bill is a good idea, but any anti-spam law comes down to enforcement and the FTC will have to ramp up enforcement,” said John Mozena, co-founder and vice president of the Coalition against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.

FTC Chairman Timothy Muris in August went a step further in cautioning that federal legislation alone could not halt the rising flood of spam.

“No one should expect any new law to make a substantial difference by itself,” Muris said.

Because spammers can send thousands of e-mails per day at essentially no cost, and spammers can create new e-mail addresses and hide their identities, few would have the incentive to cease sending unsolicited e-mails in spite of new laws, Muris explained.

If a do-not-spam registry were established, Muris said, “my advice to consumers would be don’t waste the time and effort to sign up.”

“Instead, recipients and Internet service providers bear most of the costs,” Muris added.

Mozena told the Online NewsHour that the Senate’s bill could be effective, as long as the FTC had additional funding and broader authority to work with similar international agencies to catch spammers working beyond U.S. borders.

In the meantime, e-mail and software programs — such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL — are also offering consumers tougher filters to stop unwanted mail from flooding users’ inboxes.

Thirty-seven states so far have approved anti-spam bills. Should President Bush sign the Can Spam bill into federal law, the legislation would preempt the state laws.