Senate committee approves stronger antispam bill

A pumped up version of the first of more than a half dozen antispam bills introduced in the U.S. Congress this year was approved Thursday by a Senate committee and sent to the full Senate for a vote.

A new version of Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM) was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Thursday with stiffer penalties for some kinds of activities associated with sending unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The old version of the bill set penalties at US$10 per each piece of illegal spam sent, up to maximum of US$500,000, or $1.5 million if a court determines the spammer sent illegal e-mail “willfully and knowingly.” The new version of the bill allows fines of up to $100 per e-mail sent with misleading header information and $25 per e-mail for other violations, such as e-mail with deceptive subject headings or without a functioning return address where the recipient can opt out of future e-mail. The maximum penalties are now $3 million if a court determines a spammer willfully sent illegal spam, and $1 million if the court doesn’t reach that determination.

Also subject to the fines are activities such as establishing numerous e-mail accounts in an effort to make spam more difficult to track, hijacking computers to send spam; and “dictionary” attacks — sending e-mail to multiple combinations of letters and numbers on e-mail server in hope that some of the combinations are valid e-mail address.

The new version of CAN-SPAM also includes a provision prohibiting an e-mail sender from sharing or selling a person’s e-mail address after the recipient has asked to be removed from the sender’s mailing list.

Separately, two new antispam bills were announced this week, in addition to CAN-SPAM and six other bills already introduced.

CAN-SPAM’s sponsors defended their bill as a good first step toward passing a national antispam law, although some antispam activists have criticized it for requiring that spam recipients opt out of future e-mail, instead of requiring that marketers get opt-in permission from e-mail recipients.

“We don’t think our legislation is bulletproof,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and cosponsor of CAN-SPAM. “But we think it is a chance for the government to go on the offensive.”

Still, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, called for even stiffer penalties on spam containing fraudulent transmission information. CAN-SPAM allows for prison terms of up to one year for such activities, but Nelson offered an amendment that would allow racketeering charges under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). Nelson introduced a bill in May that would do the same thing, and he argued that the RICO charges would allow law enforcement authorities to seize the assets of businesses engaged in spamming, but he withdrew his amendment after others on the committee spoke up against it. [See, “Antispam bill allows racketeering charges,” May 14.]

“If you really want teeth in this bill to stop spammers you’ve got to have more than just having a misdemeanor penalty,” Nelson said.

Senator John D. Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, urged Nelson not to withdraw his amendment. “A law without teeth is not a law,” he said.

CAN-SPAM sponsors Wyden and Senator Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, promised to work with Nelson and other lawmakers on the bill before it goes to the Senate floor. “(The bill) has gotten tougher in the last 24 hours, and it’ll get tougher,” Wyden said.

The Commerce Committee did approve an amendment offered by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is chairman of the committee. The McCain amendment would make businesses that are knowingly promoted through e-mail with false or misleading transmission information subject to U.S. Federal Trade Commission penalties.

Also Thursday, Senators Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on that committee, introduced their own antispam bill, called the Criminal Spam Act of 2003.

Among other changes in law, the Hatch-Leahy bill would make it a crime to hack into a computer to send bulk commercial e-mail, and would allow criminal penalties of up to five years in prison for criminal spam violations, including sending bulk e-mail that conceals the source or destination of an e-mail, committed in the furtherance of another felony.

Also, late Wednesday Representatives Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, and Gene Green, a Texas Democrat, announced their own antispam legislation. Their bill allows e-mail users to opt out from all commercial e-mail from a company, prohibits companies from sending e-mail with fraudulent or misleading header information, and criminal penalties of up to two years in prison and $250,000 for companies that continuously violate parts of the law, including provisions prohibiting fraudulent e-mail and protecting consumers against sexually oriented messages.