US senators introduce antispam bill

Two U.S. senators have re-introduced an antispam bill allowing fines of up to US$10 per e-mail to senders of unsolicited e-mail who refuse to stop.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act — CAN-SPAM for short — would require that senders of unsolicited e-mail include return e-mail addresses where recipients can write to opt out of further mailings. If the spammer continues to send unsolicited e-mail to that person’s address, he or she could be fined $10 per e-mail, up to $500,000. Courts finding spammers who “willingly and knowingly” violated the law could impose fines of up to $1.5 million.

The bill also imposes a criminal penalty of up to a year in jail for spammers who include misleading header information in unsolicited commercial e-mails.

Senators Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, re-introduced the bill Thursday. This version of CAN-SPAM is similar to versions introduced during the last two sessions of Congress. Last year, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee unanimously approved the bill, but it failed to make it to the full Senate floor for debate.

A spokeswoman for Burns said she was unsure when a hearing on the bill would happen this year.

The spokeswoman admitted that the bill would do little to stem the tide of spam from countries outside the U.S., but said it would ultimately reduce the amount of spam from U.S. spammers. “Overseas, it’s really hard to control that,” she added. “But this will definitely keep the numbers down, that’s the point.”

Free speech advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have opposed some antispam legislation because of fears that it would limit e-mail users’ ability to share their thoughts with others. Wendy Seltzer, a staff attorney with the EFF, said the CAN-SPAM bill sounds less aggressive than some past bills, but she still questioned whether it would allow people to communicate anonymously through e-mail.

“That’s something we want to protect as well,” she said.

Seltzer also questioned whether the bill would have much enforcement action behind it. “It’s not as if this is going to go in and break things,” she said of the bill. “But it sounds an awful lot like a Band-Aid measure.”

Burns, in a statement, said an estimated 40 percent of e-mail in the U.S. is spam, causing a loss of more than $10 billion a year.

“The costs are enormous for people paying long distance charges for their Internet time,” Burns said in a statement. “This is unfair to consumers and something needs to be done.”

Wyden, in a statement, said the bill would continue to allow legitimate e-commerce message. “Just as quickly as the use of e-mail has spread, its usefulness could dwindle — buried under an avalanche of ‘get rich quick,’ ‘lose weight fast,’ and pornographic marketing pitches,” Wyden said in the statement. “This bill will help to keep legitimate Internet traffic and e-commerce flowing by going after those unscrupulous individuals who use e-mail in annoying and misleading ways.”

America Online Inc. issued a statement in support of the CAN-SPAM bill, and Burns said the bill also has support from Yahoo Inc. and eBay Inc.

“We will continue to work together with other ISPs (Internet service providers) and policymakers to ensure that spam legislation has ‘real teeth,’ and provides the weapons needed to enable and empower AOL and other ISPs to pursue the most egregious and offensive spam violators — those who continue their daily spam attacks using the most fraudulent and evasive methods,” the AOL statement read in part.