Spam hearing: E-mail tax, international treaty proposed

U.S. senators and others, including a self-professed spammer, offered several ideas for attacking spam with legislation, among them a small charge for sending e-mail and an international spam treaty, during a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Senator Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat, recommended to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that lawmakers approve a small charge per piece of e-mail sent. “I think it’s worth looking at some very, very small charge for every e-mail sent, so small that it would not be onerous for an individual or business that has regular (e-mail) use, but it would be a deterrent for those who are sending millions and even billions of these e-mails,” Dayton said.

In early March, Dayton introduced the “Computer Owners’ Bill of Rights,” which proposes creating a national antispam registry but does not include a charge for sending e-mail. But at the Wednesday hearing, Dayton suggested the e-mail tax, as well as a federal antispam SWAT team to combat growing amounts of unsolicited commercial e-mail in Internet users’ in-boxes.

Dayton’s ideas were among several advanced during the committee hearing, where the consensus seemed to be that something needs to be done about spam before it cripples the Internet. But few senators and witnesses could agree on what exactly should be done.

“What was a simple annoyance last year has become a major concern this year and could cripple one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century next year if nothing is done,” said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who proposed an international spam treaty.

E-mail marketers trying to do the right thing by providing contact information and opt-out links are being driven underground by Internet service providers who kill their service after a few thousand complaints, said Ronald Scelson, operator of Scelson Online Marketing, based in Slidell, Louisiana.

Scelson’s company was forced to disguise the sender information of the 180 million pieces of e-mail it sends out every day after one carrier shut him off after receiving 1,200 complaints, he said. But with a 1 percent response rate on the unsolicited commercial e-mail it sends out, far more people are buying the products advertised than complaining about the spam, he said.

“Why do more people buy than complain about it?” Scelson asked. “If (the mail you send is) 100 percent legal, and (Internet service providers) get a single complaint, they will turn around and kill your circuit, so we go out of business.or we’re forced to forge the headers. The biggest complain is you can’t find us. If you could, you’re going to shut us down, so why should we let you find us?”

Scelson promised to work with Congress on any spam legislation. He claimed that some Internet service providers are adding to the estimated US$10 billion cost of spam to U.S. businesses in 2003 by setting up spam filters that require bulk e-mailers to send one message at a time, eating up additional bandwidth at both ends of the e-mailing process. And Scelson suggested that outlawing most commercial e-mail amounts to censorship, and asked senators if they were planning to outlaw bulk postal mail as well.

“I’m told that there’s a lot of cost factors in reading this e-mail,” Scelson said. “When you read this e-mail, you go through and push ‘delete.’ But when you’re at home (reading postal mail), you have to walk outside, take this junk mail out of the box, read this junk mail — have you thought about how much chemicals, pollution and trees that are involved with this? And then you’ve got to throw it away.”

Scelson threw his own spam prevention idea into the mix. He advocated that all e-mail applications include a “no bulk e-mail” box that customers can check, forcing bulk e-mail to bounce back to the sender. “It costs no money on AOL’s end and no money on our end,” he said. “The system I proposed costs no money and gives the power back to the people. I agree that there needs to be a solution, but just don’t take the freedom away from the individual, this should be their right, not for the carriers to say, ‘We’re going to shut you down or we’re going to block you.’ ”

Committee members Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, promoted their Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act, which outlaws false e-mail headers and requires senders of bulk commercial e-mail to provide legitimate addresses where people can opt out of future e-mail. But antispam activists have criticized the bill for allowing only fines of $10 per e-mail, instead of requiring that bulk e-mailers receive permission from people before sending them e-mail. [See, “US senators introduce antispam bill,” April 10.]

During the hearing, Commissioner Orson Swindle of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) repeated criticisms of CAN-SPAM and other antispam legislation voiced at an FTC spam forum held April 30 to May 2. Internet users shouldn’t have to opt out of every piece of junk e-mail they receive, he said, but he complained that companies that send e-mail don’t seem to have the will to deal with the problem because they might hurt their own marketing opportunities.

Swindle advocated a technological solution that would allow Internet users to block all e-mail except from people in their address books. “Give the consumer the power,” he said. “Empower the consumer to say no to what’s coming into his mailbox.”

The problem with spam is that it’s difficult to find the spammers, calling into question the effectiveness of most legislation, Swindle said. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, has proposed charging some spammers with racketeering offenses, and Swindle said he’s close to supporting criminal penalties for some spammers. [See, “Antispam bill allows racketeering charges,” May 14.]

“What we need are a couple of good hangings,” Swindle said. “I have not seen one piece of legislation that I think would be adequate.”

Swindle’s comments prompted Wyden to question why the FTC voiced support for an earlier version of the CAN-SPAM bill, one version of which was passed out of the Senate committee last year but not voted on before the entire Senate. “When you have the real scofflaws, when you have the real bad actors, those are not people who are paying attention to what industry self-regulatory initiatives are all about,” he said, countering Swindle’s calls for the industry to police its own. “That’s why we’ve got to move the government quickly.”

Schumer threw out the idea of an international spam treaty. Schumer, who’s also proposed a national do-not-spam registry and criminal penalties for fraudulent spam, said without an international treaty, a U.S. law would cause the “most prolific spammers to flee to other countries.”

Schumer said he supports a national law but that that’s not enough. “The bottom line is that the second we tighten up enforcement here at home, rogue actors go overseas to continue their activities,” he said. “If we’re just focused on curbing spam here at home, we’ll be unsuccessful.”

Asked if a national do-not-spam list, administered by the FTC, would work, Swindle said it would not. “You’re talking about an incredibly large database that would be difficult to secure,” he said. “If I’m a spammer, I think that (list) is a target-rich environment.”

Also on Wednesday, Microsoft Corp. and Symantec Corp. advanced their own ideas for combating spam, which were entered into the committee’s official record. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates called for global independent trust authorities that could certify legitimate e-mail solicitations, while Symantec called for increased enforcement of existing fraud laws and beefing up the prosecutorial staff at the FTC. [See, “Microsoft, Symantec give Senate recipes for frying spam,” May 21.]

Despite the wide range of proposals, witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing, from Scelson and the Network Advertising Initiative to America Online Inc. and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, all agreed that something needs to be done to combat spam.

“We needed legislation last year, we needed it yesterday, we need it as soon as possible,” said J. Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, a cooperative of Internet advertisers. “Once we have that, we need strong enforcement.”