Enforcement slows spam regulation, legislators say

Despite what Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) called a 'huge groundswell' of popular concern about spam, crafting enforceable legislation to control it is proving a tough job for Congress.

The global nature of the Internet and the technical challenges of filtering unsolicited and unwelcome e-mail complicate the problem, said Sessions, vice chairman of the Select Homeland Security subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Science and Research and Development.

'I think legislation is probably a good thing to do,' he said today at a lunch meeting in Washington. 'But [spam] could come from anywhere in the world. Today there is simply not a consensus' on the technology and the policies needed.

The European Union is ahead of the United States in antispam regulation, said British Member of Parliament Brian White. The EU has mandated laws, effective Dec. 1 in the United Kingdom, which require computer users to opt in, or request to receive commercial e-mail from an advertiser. White is part of a British delegation discussing the spam issue with members of Congress.

Because of First Amendment free speech concerns, U.S. antispam proposals generally require users to opt out by notifying advertisers they do not wish to receive e-mail ads. But even this milder regulation has seen little success in Congress. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) in May introduced what Sessions called the most balanced antispam bill before the House, but it has bogged down in committee. Two earlier bills introduced by Wilson have failed, and her current bill 'hasn't picked up the steam it had last year at this time,' Sessions said.

White, whose delegation is working with Congress to develop a bilateral position on spam, said laws in different countries do not have to be identical, but they do have to be enforceable.

'Whatever legislation comes out of the United States, the amount of resources given the enforcement officials is going to determine whether it works or not,' he said.

Because of a convergence with viruses and worms, spam is growing from a nuisance and an economic issue to a security threat. Worms such as the SoBig series are being used to deliver Trojan horse programs that leave compromised computers open for use as proxy servers by spammers.

Mark Sunner, chief technology officer of MessageLabs Inc. of New York, which sponsored the meeting, said two thirds of spam detected by his company's e-mail filtering service are tracked to these open proxies. He said the iterations of the SoBig worm showed increasing sophistication in their e-mailing functions.

'There is no question that the authors are probably motivated by spam,' he said.

Sessions, a former employee of Bell Labs, said there needs to be a general consensus on how far the Internet should be regulated and on how the technology to do this can be implemented. The public switched telephone network provides data to track calls from their origin to their destination, he said, a feature conspicuously lacking in the Internet.

'I'm not suggesting that we should burden the Internet with having to do that type of thing,' he said. But he said industry should take the lead in a collaborating with government to develop a consensus on the legislative and technical framework needed to control spam.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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