Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Congress approves first national anti-spam legislation



By Ted Bridis
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Congress on Monday approved the first national effort to stem the flood of unwanted e-mail pitches offering prescription drugs, cheap loans and other come-ons.

President Bush has indicated he intends to sign the measure into law. Indeed the White House revamped its own e-mail system this summer over a flood of so-called spam.

Clogged inboxes have become a leading irritation among Internet users, an increasing business expense for companies and a popular target for Washington interest before an election year.

"Today, it's a nightmare that threatens to overwhelm people's legitimate use of the Internet," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. "All the technologies and the filters have failed to keep our inboxes free of junk."

The House voted without dissent to approve slight changes Senate lawmakers made to the "can spam" legislation, which would outlaw the shadiest techniques used by the Internet's most prolific e-mailers, who send tens of millions of messages each day. The bill would supplant tougher anti-spam laws already passed in some states, including a California law that takes effect Jan. 1.

The bill was among the farthest-reaching Internet measures approved during the Bush's term, which has largely continued the Clinton administration's hands-off approach toward regulating America's technology industry. The last such major legislation was a 1998 law banning Web sites from collecting personal information from children under 13.

The anti-spam bill encourages the Federal Trade Commission to create a do-not-spam list of e-mail addresses and includes penalties for spammers of up to five years in prison in rare circumstances. The Senate previously voted 97-0 to approve the bill.

The legislation would prohibit senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail from disguising their identity by using a false return address or misleading subject line. It also would prohibit senders from harvesting addresses off Web sites and require such e-mails to include a mechanism so recipients could indicate they did not want future mass mailings.

"This is one of the more sweeping Internet regulatory schemes we've seen," said Alan Davidson of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology. Although he criticized parts of the anti-spam bill, he said consumer frustration was driving lawmakers.

"Most people are going to be glad this bill is heading to the president soon," he said.

Some critics said the bill didn't go far enough to discourage unwanted e-mails. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mails called the congressional effort "really disappointing." The group prefers a law requiring marketers to obtain someone's permission before sending them any e-mails. It said the alternative method of consumers asking marketers not to send them any more messages hasn't worked.

"What Congress is effectively doing is ignoring these laws that haven't worked everywhere else they've tried," said the group's spokesman, John Mozena. "This bill fails the most basic tests for anti-spam legislation; it doesn't tell anybody not to spam."

Tips for reducing the amount of unsolicited e-mail

• Don't display your e-mail address in public. Spammers use automated tools to collect valid addresses from Web pages, chat rooms and online directories. Consider using a second e-mail address for public correspondence.

• Consider using software to filter e-mails. Some are free, and some work better than others. Most can be customized to allow personal e-mails from family members, for example, but block many advertisements. The most prominent antivirus vendors are increasingly building spam-filter utilities into their security products.

• Check a Web site's privacy policy before you submit your e-mail address to see whether it permits the company to share your address with online marketing companies; if it does see whether it's possible to "opt out" from such an arrangement.

• For years, experts have discouraged Internet users from replying to unwanted e-mails with requests to be removed from future mailings because that verifies that spam was sent to a valid address. Under the new law, however, marketers are required to honor such do-not-send requests after the first unsolicited advertisement.

• The government wants your spam. Forward unwanted or deceptive e-mails to uce@ftc.gov, where federal regulators are creating a huge spam database to go after the most egregious marketers.




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