The US Congress is pushing for an anti-spam law to be passed this year, but two current proposals drew criticism Wednesday from anti-spam activists for not going far enough.
In a joint hearing, two US House of Representatives subcommittees debated the merits of two House proposals, the Reduction in Distribution of (RID) Spam Act of 2003 and the Anti-Spam Act of 2003, two of nine bills addressing spam introduced in Congress this year.
Supporters of the Anti-Spam Act, authored by Representatives Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, and Gene Green, a Texas Democrat, promoted it as tougher on spam than the RID Spam Act, authored by Representative Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, and backed by Representative Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The RID Spam Act also was the subject of a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Tuesday.
But a representative of the Consumers Union pressed for tougher legislation than either bill provided, including the right of private email users to file class-action lawsuits against spammers. Chris Murray, legislative counsel for the Consumers Union, has also called for Congress to pass a law forcing companies to get opt-in permission from customers before sending them commercial email, but on Wednesday, he said an opt-in provision doesn't seem politically realistic.
Class-action lawsuits Murray defended his call for class-action lawsuits, however, after Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, suggested most spammers would be "judgment proof." Stearns called for civil and criminal penalties for spammers, which are included in both bills, and he questioned if class-action lawsuits might target legitimate companies that mistakenly send out unsolicited email.
"Spam is such an enormous problem, we need to recruit the help of all sides of this, and consumers are an absolutely integral part of that," Murray responded. "I think that people would go after the money, but assuming that (companies) with the money have done some bad behaviour, I don't think that's necessarily out of line."
But Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Amazon.com, said his company would not support legislation that would penalize legitimate companies who fall victim to technology or human mistakes. "Amazon.com will support particular legislation only if it recognizes that legitimate businesses occasionally make honest mistakes," he said. "Such truly honest mistakes simply are not the cause of consumer angst."
Also not in either bill is a trusted email sender idea being advanced by Microsoft. Ira Rubinstein, Microsoft's associate general counsel, urged the two subcommittees to consider legislation that would encourage companies to sign up with email standards groups that would promote ethical emailing techniques. One way to encourage email senders to sign up would be for Congress to require an "ADV" advertisement label on all commercial email sent by non-members of a trusted email group.
Sexually oriented Backers of the Wilson-Green bill touted its requirement that sexually oriented commercial email include an opt-out link without recipients having to look at adult-themed pictures, and its requirement that if a recipient opts out of receiving future email from a company, in the same request, he or she can opt out of any email from business affiliates of the company as well.
The Burr bill requires sexually oriented e-mail to include an "ADT" label, but doesn't include a provision that allows recipients to opt out of email from a company and all its business affiliates. Instead, recipients would have to opt out of receiving email from each business partner.
Critics of the Burr bill questioned why consumers could easily be put on an email of dozens of business affiliates, but should have to opt out of each on of them separately. "To create an extra hurdle for them will require them to opt out repeatedly," said Paula Selis, senior counsel for the Washington state attorney general's office. "They have less control over their email box."
Backers of the Wilson-Green bill also objected to RID Spam's definition of spam as email that has as its primary purpose a commercial message. They said that definition would allow spammers to send unsolicited email with a commercial message buried inside of it.
The Wilson-Green bill also prohibits bulk commercial email with deceptive subject lines, something the Burr bill doesn't do. But Burr defended the bill, saying that while it isn't perfect, it has the best chance of passing through the full House. House members are 98 per cent of the way to creating a good bill, he said, but he also warned that no legislation alone will kill spam completely.
"Don't one of us walk away from here and think we can design a trap that will eliminate all (spam)," he said.
500% increase While the subcommittee members argued over approaches, all said Congress needs to pass antispam legislation. Charles "Garry" Betty, president and chief executive officer of Internet service provider EarthLink Inc., said the amount of spam coming into his network has increased by 500 per cent in the last 18 months and is now 50 per cent of all email traffic on EarthLink's networks. EarthLink has used spam-blocking techniques that catches more than 70 per cent of spam and more than 100 lawsuits against spammers to fight the influx, but customers are still sick of spam, Betty said.
Tauzin called the two bills "remarkably similar," but pushed for the RID Spam Act, which he has co-sponsored. "If our house is our castle, our castle is under siege right now," Tauzin said of the growing amount of spam. "It's time to give Americans the chance to say no to unwanted email."