The US House of Representitives moved a step closer to an anti-spam law yesterday, when a House sub-committee heard from the sponsors of three separate bills. It remains a possibility that whatever steps the US may take to regulate spam could be mirrored by other countries legistlatures - including the UK.
Sponsors of the three bills claimed anti-spam laws were necessary due to the cost of unsolicited emails - borne mainly by ISPs and consumers.
The sponsors representing the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Direct Marketing Association and ISPs, also expressed concern over spam messages that link to pornographic Web sites.
Only a few weeks ago, it appeared as though the House wouldn’t hold a hearing on the spam bills until next year. However, the comments and questions of many of the sub-committee members indicated that spam is a topic that's climbing the agenda.
Legislative aides working for the bills' three sponsors said they have been meeting regularly, trying to establish consensus. Republican representative W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, chairman of the subcommittee, indicated parts of each bill might be combined into one, which would be easier to move to the House floor before the US Congress adjourns for the year.
However, the legislation has a way to go before becoming law. The hearing was the first on any spam legislation, and the Senate has yet to formally take up the subject.
Republican representative Heather Wilson, sponsor of one of the bills, told the committee she is concerned about spam because messages are often designed to fool users into clicking on them. For example, one message she received shortly after being elected to Congress had the subject line "what the federal government doesn't want you to know." Assuming it was from a resident of her district, she opened it, only to find a link to a porn Web site.
The problem was highlighted further when a constituent told her about an email, also linking to a porn site, with the subject line "the latest games you want to play", which she said was obviously aimed at children.
Wilson's bill would create a national "opt-out" list, to which anyone wanting to refuse spam could add their name. The bill would require commercial email to have a valid return address, and the sender would have to comply with removal requests. If subsequent emails are sent despite the request, the recipient would have the right to sue the sender in local court or ask the FTC to investigate.
Wilson's bill goes further than either of the other anti-spam bills in giving consumers some recourse against spam; however, Representative Gary Miller, a Republican from California, sponsor of one of the other spam bills, doesn't think an "opt-out" list would work and believes it would compromise privacy.
"People who want to opt-out put themselves on a list that might be used for other purposes," Miller told the subcommittee.
Other panelists raised questions about whether the list, which would change constantly, could be synchronized with the servers of ISPs and companies that send commercial bulk email.
Miller said his bill takes a better approach by giving ISPs more clout when suing spammers. His bill clarifies whose property is used when unsolicited-commercial email is sent, and sets damage amounts at US$50 per spam and $25,000 per day in civil court cases brought by ISPs against spammers.
The change is needed because there presently isn't enough incentive to sue spammers, Miller said: "Currently, [under US law] Internet service providers can sue spammers for trespass; however, it is very expensive and time consuming to bring these suits," Miller said. "My bill clarifies existing private property rights, and quantifies damages."
In crafting the legislation, Miller said he took pains to make sure it wouldn't result in a flood of lawsuits from individuals, which the opt-out list could potentially, cause. He said his bill lets ISPs set and enforce their own anti-spam policies, based on the needs and desires of their customers.
The third bill before the House is sponsored by Democratic representative Gene Green, who said his chief concern is outlawing the practice, employed by some spammers, of using an individual's or a company's domain address for the purpose of sending out spam. Wilson and Green have already taken steps to combine their two bills.
Sub-committee Chairman Tauzin suggested a simpler approach to the problem of spam, might be to require commercial email to be labeled as such, which would then make it possible for ISPs to filter it easily.
Charles H. Kennedy, a professor of computer law at the Catholic University of America, told Tauzin he believes a law requiring such identification would not impinge on free speech rights as long as it applies only to commercial email.
But John Brown, president of iHighway.net, an ISP, said such solution passes too much responsibility and the cost of controlling spam to ISPs and users, who might also feel the need to install filters.
"My stance is I don't want to have to spend even a penny," Brown said.