Congress moving to ban types of spam
Bill would override stronger state laws, such as California's
Jonathan Krim, Washington Post
Saturday, November 22, 2003
2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback


Washington -- House and Senate negotiators Friday reached agreement on a bill to curb unsolicited e-mail, clearing the way for the first federal law to attack the growing wave of spam that has overwhelmed computer in-boxes and cost businesses billions of dollars a year.

The bill, scheduled to be voted on early today by the House, would sweep away more than 35 state anti-spam laws, including some that imposed significantly tighter restrictions on e-mail marketing, such as one set to take effect Jan. 1 in California.

Congressional leaders said the bill would then be quickly ratified by the Senate, which passed a version of the bill last month.

Although consumers are unlikely to see immediate reductions in spam after the law takes effect, it would give federal law enforcers and regulators broad authority to prosecute the most unsavory senders of unsolicited commercial e- mail, who peddle everything from financial scams to body-enhancement products and pornography.

But the bill hardly quells the controversy over how best to crack down on spam. Some consumer groups and anti-spam activists argue it would be largely ignored by the worst spammers, many of whom operate overseas. Meanwhile, they say, the bill would codify rules by which legitimate companies can send even more unwanted e-mail.

Retailers, marketers and Internet account providers lobbied hard for a national law that provided a single set of rules, as well as protections for legitimate companies that advertise via e-mail.

They were especially concerned that Congress act before a tough new anti- spam law in California took effect Jan. 1. That law would apply to any company that sent marketing messages to California residents.

The bill provides for criminal penalties for a variety of spammer tactics,

including disguising the Internet addresses of their computers so they cannot be located, "harvesting" e-mail addresses from Web sites and sending spam to them, using deceptive subject lines in messages and sending spam to millions of e-mail addresses that are randomly generated by special software programs.

E-mail recipients would have to be given clear opportunity to remove themselves from future mailings, and all commercial e-mail would have to be labeled as advertising in some fashion, though the bill would leave marketers free to choose how that labeling will occur.

Unsolicited e-mail containing pornography would have to contain a warning label in the subject line.

The legislation was hammered out in a flurry of talks over the past 36 hours. After the House deadlocked between two of its own bills, the Republican leadership scrapped both and instead worked with Senate staff to revise the Senate bill.

The bill now moves back to the Senate for another vote, rather than to a conference committee.

President Bush supported the original Senate bill, and a White House spokesman said that although he would review the changes, he continued to back the measure's thrust.

Marketing firms and Internet providers such as Microsoft Corp., America Online and Yahoo Inc., all of which participated in crafting pieces of the legislation, quickly praised the bill Friday night.

H. Robert Wientzen, head of the Direct Marketing Association, said that his group was encouraged by most of the bill. However, he said, his industry is troubled by a provision pushed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to set up a do-not-spam registry, similar to the popular do-not-call list for telemarketers.

Under the bill, the FTC, which opposes a spam registry on the grounds that spammers would ignore it, would have to come up with a plan for the list but would not be obliged to implement it.

Anticipating spam in the form of text messages or e-mail to cell phones, the bill also directs the Federal Communications Commission to develop rules to prevent it.

Members of Congress in the middle of the negotiations praised the outcome.

"I think it's a pretty good bill," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who had opposed the original Senate bill and a House bill sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., as being too weak. "We'll see if it's enough."

2003 San Francisco Chronicle