Survey: Spam Perceptions May Be Hurting E-Commerce

WASHINGTON (04/13/2000) - E-mail spam is increasingly coming under legislative attack in the states and in the U.S. Congress, but it remains unclear just what impact these measures may have on a practice that has few friends.

To help increase support for national legislation, congressional advocates of an antispam bill yesterday released a survey that suggests public perception of spam may be hurting legitimate e-commerce businesses.

The survey is based on 1,410 responses from people who visited the Spam Recycling Center Web site, which collects spam and forwards it to the U.S.

Federal Trade Commission.

About 43% of the respondents said they believe it is "very likely" that their e-mail address was obtained from an e-commerce site they visited. Another 29% maintained it was "somewhat" likely that their e-mail address was obtained this way.

Iam Oxman, president of Chooseyourmail.com in Chicago and one of the sponsors of the Spam Recycling Center, said he believes that spam threatens the growth of e-commerce and is pushing for legislative action.

Although filtering technologies used by Internet service providers and Web-based e-mail companies such as Yahoo Inc. appear to be improving, Oxman said the only true solution is a legislative one. Technology won't solve the problem, he said. "I think that is always going to be a cat-and-mouse game."

Some 14 states have already adopted antispam legislation, and other states are considering similar measures. Among the states that have adopted antispam measures are California, Washington and Tennessee. Washington's antispam legislation was recently ruled unconstitutional by a state court, but the attorney general said the state plans to appeal.

Antispam legislation is also advancing in Congress, and its supporters believe approval is possible by July.

The federal effort, which combines the work of three separate spam bills sponsored by U.S. Reps. Gary Miller, a Republican from California, Heather Wilson, a Republican from New Mexico, and Gene Green, a Democrat from Texas, would set civil penalties for sending unsolicited commercial e-mail.

At present, it's difficult for someone to prove damages when suing a spammer.

The legislation would allow an individual or Internet service provider to claim $500 in damages for each spam, up to $25,000 per day. It also requires a spammer to honor an "opt-out" request from an end user, along with mandating accurate address headers. The legislation gives the FTC the power to go after violators.

The bill forces consumers to opt out of "hundreds or thousands of mailing lists that they didn't ask to get put on in the first place and almost certainly don't want to be on," said David H. Kramer, an intellectual property attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's certainly better than the alternative, which is nothing."

But Kramer said the bill could have an impact similar to the 1992 facsimile legislation that prohibited unsolicited faxes. The most important aspect of the legislation may be "altering the consciousness of the country to make it clear that this is an unscrupulous and unconscionable activity that amounts to theft," he said.

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