Welcome to Spam Week

Roy Mark

Updated · Apr 29, 2003

With the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hosting a three-day “Spam Forum” beginning Wednesday, lawmakers are using the spam spotlight to grab their own political publicity. While the FTC plans to listen, the politicians are jockeying into position to tell Americans they, too, are upset by spam.

Unlike the FTC, the lawmakers want action now. Congress has had a number of opportunities but has never having passed an anti-spam bill. Now lawmakers are talking tough — again.

If you don’t have your ticket yet, don’t bother: the bandwagon is full, the soapboxes are crowded and the rhetoric is red hot.

One lawmaker is threatening to throw spammers in jail, another wants to hang bounties on their heads and one of the nation’s leading Internet law professors says he’ll resign his job if his ideas don’t work.

All the hoopla is designed to draw attention to what Americans already know: mailboxes are clogged with unprecedented amounts of spam, almost all of which is perfectly legal. The consumer clamor against e-mail clutter is reaching a decibel level that even Congress can hear.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) got the political publicity jump on his colleagues over the weekend, leaking he will be introducing legislation that will authorize the FTC to create “no spam” registries similar to the FTC’s “no call” list for telemarketers. Mass e-mailers who ignore the list will be subject to fines and, possibly, jail sentences.

Silicon Valley Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.) followed on Monday with a bill that would establish a bounty for the first person to track down a spammer who violates proposed labeling or opt-out requirements. Lofgren said she based her bounty bill on an idea by Stanford law professor Larry Lessig, who said he’ll quit his job if the idea doesn’t work.

“This is the smallest step the government could take to eliminate a problem that is strangling e-mail on the Internet. This mix of public and private action to make it possible for people to choose whether to receive spam or not will, in my view, work,” Lessig said. “And if offering to resign the best job in the world at the greatest law school in the nation helps build the alliance necessary to get it passed, then I am happy to make that offer.”

Both bills require mandatory subject line labeling for commercial bulk mailers, mandate valid return e-mail addresses where a consumer can opt-out of receiving further e-mails, and prohibit spam with false or misleading routing information.

Lofgren would fund her bounties by authorizing the FTC to collect civil fines against marketers who violate the requirements of her bill. She and Lessig suggest a bounty of 20 percent of the civil fine levied by the FTC to be paid for information that leads to the successful collection of civil fines.

“To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem we face, AOL alone blocks 1 billion messages a day. This number will only grow. According to some industry experts, by the end of this year, fully half of all e-mail sent in the United States will be unsolicited,” said Lofgren. “The problem is not just the volume of spam, it’s tracking down the bad actors. Often, spammers use multiple e-mail addresses or disguise the routing information so that they can’t be identified.”

With no federal laws that specifically ban spam, the FTC spam summit is being held to address the proliferation of UCE and to explore the technical, legal, and financial issues associated with it. Panels include a broad spectrum of topics, including the economics of spam, blacklists, wireless spam, federal and state legislation, litigation challenges, and possible technological solutions to spam or structural changes in the e-mail system itself.

The forum will be held at the FTC and is open to the public. Pre-registration is not required but seating is limited.

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