Privacy advocates say amended spam bill lacks teeth

When Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) introduced legislation in February that would prevent or greatly reduce unsolicited commercial e-mail, commonly known as spam, privacy advocates cheered and gave their support.

But then some trade associations complained, and shortly thereafter, the bill was amended in a congressional committee and stripped of some of its enforcement provisions.

Privacy advocates now say the changes have taken the teeth out of the bill, and they are lining up to fight back.

"This bill is far too weak," said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a privacy advocacy organization in Green Brook, N.J.

The bill is now before the House Judiciary Committee, where it awaits approval before going to a full vote by the House. A similar bill in the Senate has also provoked disapproval from privacy advocates. That bill is also stuck in committee.

Junkbusters and the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE) are two of the privacy advocates that have vowed to fight the amended version of the bill, known as House Resolution 718. The primary problem, said Catlett, is that the bill is centered around the so-called opt-in model. That means that Internet service providers (ISP) and end users must first receive spam before they can request not to be sent any more.

Meanwhile, privacy advocates at CAUCE maintain that this is a property protection issue and argue that the owners of property such as servers or PCs shouldn't be forced to spend money to protect themselves before intrusion is considered illegal.

"So if a business has their e-mail shut down for a day because of spam, they have to clean up their e-mail disaster, then send an opt-out request, and only after some reasonable time can they defend themselves against that one entity. Of course, this process would only apply to one marketer at a time; the innocent recipient would have to go through the entire process again with each new spammer who targets them," said a statement posted on the CAUCE Web site. "The goal with previous versions of [this section of the bill] was to allow businesses and ISPs to avoid costs in the first place."

In a March 20 letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, 18 trade groups and companies, primarily from the financial services sector, attacked the original bill.

Catlett found it curious that the American Bankers Association and other financial institutions, which don't use spam, have recently expressed concerns about laws impeding electronic marketing, possibly indicating they would add it to their arsenals.

The bill would criminalize sending false header data, including false sender information, and require unsolicited commercial e-mail to be labeled as such.

Please, Don't Share

While both the government and Internet service providers are concerned about spam, a new report by Gartner Inc. suggests that companies should first look for trouble in their own backyards.

"If a company rids itself of occupational spam, they'll have a 30 percent savings in time that is usually lost in handling unproductive e-mail," said Neil MacDonald, research director at the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm and the author of the study, which is expected to be published within the next few weeks.

"This is internal e-mail from colleagues or virus hoaxes, jokes," he said, "It's nonproductive, it wastes your time and it comes disguised as regular e-mail. And, you can't tell until you open it that ‘Holy cow, it's a waste of my time.' " By MacDonald's estimate, employees spend an average of 49 minutes per day replying to e-mail, and 24 percent spend more than an hour per day checking their messages. Meanwhile, just 27 percent of the mail received requires immediate attention.

"Chat rooms, bulletin boards and even instant messaging are more efficient than e-mail for remote team collaboration," he said.

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