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Put a Lid on Spam

May 01, 2003

More than doubling in volume each year, the clutter of come-ons, get-rich-quick schemes and obscenity known as spam, once a mere annoyance, has become a serious threat to U.S. commerce. Fighting the flood of messages costs U.S. corporations nearly $9 billion and accounts for at least $4 billion in lost productivity each year.

No one who understands how easy it is to send spam is under the illusion that any one law could eliminate it. The anti-spam law that Virginia approved Tuesday, however, takes a big step beyond tsk-tsking. It will let prosecutors bring felony charges (including forfeiture of assets and up to five years in prison) against the most egregious violators: those sending more than 10,000 spam messages in a single day.

Today, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) will introduce the most promising, if imperfect, solution to date: legislation that requires marketers to label spam and offers a bounty to the first person to track down a spammer who violates the labeling requirement. People who trace the offending e-mail to its source, identify the sender and provide proof to the Federal Trade Commission would receive a reward amounting to 20% of any civil fines the agency collects. Lofgren crafted the bill with Lawrence Lessig, a prominent law professor at Stanford, who predicts that just as people tracked criminals in the Old West to win bounties, plenty of "technically qualified and eager people" would jump at a chance to track down spammers for a generous reward.

Lofgren's bill will get a hearing only if one is scheduled by the chairmen of two key House panels, the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Judiciary Committee. Those legislators, Reps. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), need to hear from valued constituents such as the thousands of small and medium-sized businesses that have found their e-mail servers unable to cope with the growing volume of spam.

Spammers often claim that any constraints on them would undermine the free spirit of the Internet. They, in fact, are the ones who are violating sacred tenets of the Internet such as respect for the rights and needs of all users. Spammers violate those tenets in a variety of ways, though no more outrageously than by sending e-mails with fraudulent headers that induce people who consider pornography vile to open such material. (About 40% of all porn e-mails carry innocuous headers.)

The FTC says just 200 people generate about 90% of the junk e-mails crashing through cyberspace. These people are not free spirits; they are predators. For now, Lofgren's bill is the most efficient way of reining them in. If that fails, California and other states will have to follow Virginia's lead, exploring new ideas for hitting spammers in the only place they'll notice: the pocketbook.

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