Facing complaints from constituents and Internet-service providers about the rising tide of unsolicited commercial e-mails, the House last week started considering legislation that would crack down on spam.
In the House and Senate, bipartisan groups of lawmakers have introduced similar bills that would make it a federal crime to send bulk e-mails that disguise the sender or evade anti-spam technology.
Violations would be punishable by jail time and hefty criminal and civil fines.
The bills also would require that commercial e-mail messages be identified as advertisements in the subject heading, and that such messages allow recipients to opt out of receiving future messages.
The Senate commerce committee last month approved its bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.). Two House panels this week held hearings in which a parade of witnesses representing ISPs, federal and state law-enforcement agencies and software companies urged Congress to approve tough anti-spam legislation.
ISPs, which claim they are spending tens of millions of dollars annually combating spam, said they were especially pleased that the House and Senate bills would establish criminal penalties for fraudulent e-mail practices and other violations of the act.
A senior cable-industry executive said officials are watching the anti-spam legislation "very closely" and are "very comfortable" with the bills as they stand.
Testifying Wednesday before a House commerce panel, America Online assistant general counsel Charles D. Curran said the bill "sets a solid foundation to address this problem."
"While technology holds many of the answers to this problem, we cannot succeed in the fight against spam without government working with ISPs to play a strong and important enforcement role," he said.
"We've really never been in the position to bring criminal cases at the federal level with the kinds of penalties" that would deter spammers, said Stuart Baker, general counsel for the U.S. Internet Service Providers Association, a Washington-based trade group. "If it's not a felony, it doesn't get the highest priority from prosecutors."
Spammers "are going to stop if they think they might go to jail over something like this," Baker added.
In previous sessions, Congress has tried and failed to pass anti-spam legislation. But Capitol Hill and industry officials are predicting that they will be more successful this time. Congressional aides expect the House and Senate to vote on the bills in the next few months.
The House legislation is sponsored by two powerful committee chairmen: Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) of the Judiciary Committee.
Aides say the two chairmen decided to collaborate on the bill so that a single version reaches the House floor, which has not been the case in past years.
"The two committees have tried to work together … on one piece of legislation, rather than having the two committees having differing views and having it die before it gets to the House floor," Judiciary Committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said.
The House bill "has a lot of power behind it," said a lobbyist for a major ISP. "With these two chairmen joined together, no one wants to mess with it."
Support for the legislation is broad but not unanimous. Chris Murray, a lobbyist for Consumers Union, told a Judiciary panel the provision in the House bill allowing people to opt out of receiving e-mail was insufficient.
"This puts too much burden on consumers to block spam and makes it too difficult to hold spammers legally accountable for their inappropriate interference with consumers' e-mail," he said. Murray advocated an opt-in mechanism, in which firms could only send mass commercial e-mails to people who agreed to receive them.
Will it help?
Other experts doubt that criminalizing spam will have much impact. They predict that many spammers simply will shift their operations overseas, outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law.
"I wonder if in the zeal to go after bad actors, who are going to go out of reach, are you going to make small businesses scared to use e-mail as a medium?" said Clyde Wayne Crews Jr., the director of technology policy at the libertarian Cato Institute.
States News Service