Effectiveness of Antispam Bill Questioned

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - Congress is expected to pass antispam legislation by July, but the bill doesn't ban unsolicited e-mail, and it's uncertain whether it will reduce the volume of spam hitting corporate networks.

The legislation, which recently won a key subcommittee endorsement, is intended to make it easier to win damages from people who send unsolicited commercial e-mail. The bill also would make it illegal to forge addresses.

The Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act is gaining congressional support because it relies more on private litigation than on government oversight to curb spam.

Although anyone can sue a spammer, it can be difficult to show damages. The bill would allow plaintiffs to seek as much as $500 for each offending e-mail received.

It has also quieted a fractious division in Congress over how to approach the problem by combining three separate antispam bills sponsored by U.S. Reps. Gary Miller (R-California), Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) and Gene Green (D-Texas).

But the bill won't prevent junk e-mail. It would force users to opt out "of hundreds or thousands of mailing lists that they didn't ask to get put on in the first place, and [that they] almost certainly don't want to be on," said David H. Kramer, an intellectual property attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, California. "It's better than the alternative, which is nothing."

The bill would require accurate return addresses on spam so users can seek removal.

Proponents, including some antispam groups, say the bill's strength rests in its ability to allow Internet service providers to seek legal enforcement of e-mail policies. The bill "negates a lot of the cost and difficulty" in bringing a lawsuit, said John Mozena, a spokesman at the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email in Weed, California.

Antispam groups and some users, such as Tom McCafferty, network manager at the Reynolds Metals Co. facility in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, said the threat of private litigation could deter spam.

"But I question whether the government really needs to be in that business so much. It's an intrusion on freedom of speech," said McCafferty, who added that Congress should exercise caution. "A lot of meaner things are going on; this is just a nuisance," he said.

The Internet Alliance, a Washington trade group, says it has concerns about the labeling. If the bill is approved, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission will require unsolicited commercial e-mail to have a subject-line label such as "ADV," for advertisement. "We support legislation that will make a difference - ADV will not get the bad actors," said Emily T. Hackett, state policy director at the alliance.

But legitimate businesses sending e-mail as a result of users' registration won't have to label, say the bill's supporters.

Another concern is that spammers could shift their work offshore to escape U.S. laws. "The reach of U.S. laws simply won't do any good," said Paul Sunil, CEO and co-founder of Brightmail Inc. in San Francisco. Brightmail supplies antispam technology that relies on staff to continuously examine spam and set filters to block it.