Antispam Legislation Passes Muster with Congress, Heads to President - 10 Dec 2003

Yesterday, the US Congress gave its approval to the first federal law to regulate spam, legislation that President George W. Bush has said he'll sign into law by the end of the year. The US House of Representatives unanimously passed an antispam law, after its earlier and similarly unanimous passage through the US Senate. And although years of infighting and several competing bills marred the process, the final version--the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act--is a classic compromise that should eliminate some of the most egregious forms of spam. Specifically, CAN-SPAM makes it illegal to forge email headers and send unsolicited pornographic advertisements. CAN-SPAM also requires spammers to include a functional return address or Web link in their mailings so that users can unsubscribe.

"It's been a long time coming, and it was a lot of work to get it there," said a spokesperson for Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. "But this is the first national law to crack down on kingpin spammers and to help protect Americans from unwanted and often offensive email. It's a tremendous opportunity for us to crack down on some of the worst offenders, who send thousands and thousands of emails a day and have no relationship with the consumers they're emailing and fill people's email inboxes with offensive spam. I think this bill is going to have a real effect in reducing spam."

Critics note that CAN-SPAM won't stop the majority of spam because most unwanted email is generated overseas. "What Congress is effectively doing is ignoring these laws that haven't worked everywhere else they've tried," said a spokesperson for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), which wanted further-reaching antispam legislation. "This bill fails the most basic tests for antispam legislation; it doesn't tell anybody not to spam." Indeed, as a compromise with earlier competing bills, CAN-SPAM isn't as aggressive as it could be; the law will use an opt-out approach instead of banning unsolicited email outright. And for states such as California that already had strict antispam laws, CAN-SPAM, which overrides those state-based efforts, is a step back in many ways.

But backers note that the law is a positive first step and will likely have some effect. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will also create a do-not-spam list to which consumers can subscribe and will punish spammers with as many as 5 years in prison. More important, perhaps, is an upcoming United Nations (UN) summit in Geneva in which representatives of many countries will discuss measures for eliminating spam internationally.

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