Congress considers ways to can unwanted e-mail

A tidal wave of unsolicited electronic messages 'is on the verge of killing the only killer app we have''e-mail, says Federal Trade Commission member Orson Swindle.

Spam costs businesses an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion annually to run double the normal number of servers to store it and pay extra staff workers to deal with it, speakers said at a Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the Cato Institute of Washington.

Speakers called congressional action inevitable because six antispam bills currently are making their way through committees: HR 122, HR 1933, HR 2214, S 563, S 877 and S 1231.

Leave it to lawyers

Half of all e-mail is now spam, said Dave Baker, a vice president of EarthLink Inc. of Atlanta, the nation's third-largest Internet provider.

But Baker advocated leaving the antispam campaign up to litigators like himself, saying that EarthLink has sued more than 100 large-scale spammers and obtained multimillion-dollar judgments.

'At FTC, 66 percent of all the spam we look at''110,000 messages per day forwarded by recipients to [email protected]''is fraudulent or deceptive, and mostly untraceable' because it comes through offshore accounts, Swindle said.

Swindle estimated there are 180 million e-mail users in the United States alone and cautioned congressional sponsors of antispam bills to 'be careful. You might do more harm than good.'

FTC supports only narrowly focused legislation, Swindle said, to help enforcers 'get to the bad guys' by outlawing the falsification of sender and subject lines. He also advocated forcing Internet providers to give customers enough power over their inboxes to do 'ruthless blocking' of unwanted messages, whether commercial or not.

The commission also wants Congress to grant it rule-making authority to interpret whatever legislation does get passed, Swindle said.

But legislation will have unintended consequences, warned the Cato Institute's Clyde Wayne Crews Jr., because different people define spam in different ways: 'Is it bulk, unsolicited, commercial e-mail or is it just something you didn't ask for?'

He discounted various technical fixes, such as requiring commercial senders to put 'ADV' in subject lines, maintaining spammer blacklists, requiring challenge-response from senders or imposing postage fees on e-mail.

Also, some people regard pop-up advertising as spam and argue that it should be banned by legislation, Crews said.

Vendors and advertisers are lobbying even more intensively against such a ban.

A law is coming, Baker predicted: 'It's certain this year or next.'


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