U.S. bill would let you sue spammers

Nobody likes e-mail spam, but a bill that would let Internet service providers and individuals sue senders of unsolicited bulk e-mail would simply be bad for retailers who use e-mail to reach customers, say opponents of the bill.

“Nothing will chill the continued expansion of the Internet faster than the very real threat of wide-ranging and potentially open-ended litigation,” says Marc Lackritz, president of the Securities Industry Association.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Thursday on two bills that deal with unsolicited bulk e-mail. Both would require bulk e-mail to contain a working return e-mail address as well as accurate header and routing information so recipients can determine the origin of the message. And if a recipient asks to be removed from a list, the sender must comply.

Laws Must Fight Fraud

“The primary focus of legislation regarding commercial e-mail should center around combating the sending of fraudulent and deceptive e-mail,” says Rick Lane of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The current bill fails to do this, and focuses instead on punishing companies that send unwanted e-mail, even if they send legitimate messages.

The bill proposed by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., lets Internet service providers or individuals sue senders of bulk e-mail if they fail to stop sending their messages upon request. The bill could bring about damages of US$500 per e-mail with a limit of $50,000. The House passed Wilson’s bill last year but the Senate failed to bring it up for a vote.

Defining Spam

The lack of a clear definition of what spam is could cause problems for companies that use the Internet to provide services to their customers, says the Securities Industry Association’s Lackritz. It could even open up companies to law suits by people looking to abuse this provision, he says. “It should be called the trial lawyers’ relief act,” he says.

But Rep. Wilson thinks Internet users need the help. Users should be able to go to court to fight bulk e-mailers that do not listen to requests to be left alone, she says.

But Paul Misener, of Amazon.com Inc. and the National Retail Federation, wonders if users and ISPs need that much power. Allowing service providers to sue when a company breaks their e-mail policies for bulk mail would give them regulatory power over the sending of e-mail, Misener says.

If every service provider had a different set of requirements, there would be a great burden on companies like Amazon.com that rely on e-mail to advertise their services to customers, he says.

“It would be virtually impossible for online retailers to know, much less comply with, the policies of thousands of ISPs across the country,” Misener says.

This regulatory power would give service providers that are also retailers an unfair advantage over retail companies that use their service to reach customers, he says.