The U.S. House of Representatives voted almost unanimously Tuesday that spam should be unlawful.
In a 427-1 vote, the House passed the Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2000, prohibiting the transmission of e-mail without a valid return e-mail address. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico).
Bill’s Future Remains Cloudy
Wilson hailed the nearly unanimous vote as a major breakthrough after more than nine months of consensus-building among supporters of nearly a dozen House anti-spam bills.
Wilson said, “We are one big step closer to providing consumers with the ability to free themselves from the annoying and sometimes offensive flood of junk e-mail clogging their computers.”
A companion bill in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), has not yet made comparable progress, making it uncertain whether an anti-spam bill will become law this year. After Burns introduced his bill in mid-May, it got bogged down in the Senate Commerce Committee, where it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.
Given the hard road the House spam measure had to travel before finally passing — which some attribute to lobbying efforts by mass mailing groups such as the Direct Marketing Association — passage of Burns’ bill is far from automatic in this election-shortened Congressional session.
Fighting High Costs and Porn
Wilson said one primary reason she pushed her bill through the House is to protect children and families from junk e-mail advertising pornographic Web sites. Citing researchers who estimate that more than one third of junk e-mail can be considered pornographic, Wilson commented that her bill “will allow parents and consumers the power to say ‘enough is enough.'”
The second-term Congresswoman was also responding to Internet service providers (ISPs) in her district, such as Associated Information Services, who complain that spammers are clogging their networks, causing both service slowdowns and lost profits.
The Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Associated Information Services applauded Wilson’s efforts. Co-owner Steven Fox said, “There are times when our clients can’t connect at all. Their e-mail is delayed. It affects everything we do.”
The largest U.S. ISP, America Online, has estimated that spam accounts for as much as 30 percent of the e-mail traffic on its system.
“The problem with spam is that the receiver pays for e-mail advertisements. Junk e-mail is like ‘postage due’ marketing or telemarketers calling collect,” Wilson said. “Spam costs consumers and ISPs $1 billion (US$) a year.”
Power to Spam Back
By requiring accurate return addresses on all unsolicited commercial e-mail, Wilson’s bill would give recipients the power to write back to the offending spammers. Additionally, requiring return addresses will make it easier to track spammers for other law violations.
The bill would make it illegal to continue sending junk e-mail to a recipient after the person asks to be removed from the solicitor’s distribution list. Unsolicited e-mail would also have to be labeled, under Wilson’s plan, so recipients will have a better sense of the mail’s contents without having to open and read it.
For ISPs, the bill offers the power to sue spammers for violating the ISP’s anti-junk mail policies. The bill would allow them to seek up to $500 per message in damages. ISPs would also bear some responsibility for protecting consumers, however, as they would be required to allow their customers to opt out of junk e-mail lists if the ISP profits from allowing the mail into its system.
The bill would also bring the federal government into the enforcement loop, charging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with tracking down spammers who break the law. Intentionally using fraudulent return addresses or routing information, including domain names, headers, and date and time stamps would be a misdemeanor criminal offense.