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State Senate Votes to Ban Spam E-Mail

Lawmakers act to outlaw the growing tide of unsolicited ads aimed at Internet users. The effort faces an uncertain future in the Assembly.

May 23, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The state Senate voted Thursday to outlaw unsolicited Internet sales pitches to California e-mail users, authorizing individuals to sue advertisers for $500 for each unwanted e-mail that arrives in their online mailboxes.

Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) said producers of such unsolicited sales pitches -- for cut-rate mortgages, potency enhancers, no-interest loans, virtual gambling casinos and other items -- should be prohibited from cramming "your e-mail in-box with ads you didn't ask for and don't want."

Without debate, Bowen's bill (SB 12) squeaked out of the Senate with no votes to spare and was sent to an uncertain future in the Assembly. The vote was 21 to 12, the minimum required for passage in the 40-member Senate.

If it's enacted, California will be the first state to prohibit the sending of unsolicited e-mail ads from within the state or to a California e-mail address. The legislation is patterned after a federal law.

Gov. Gray Davis has no position on the proposal, a spokesman said.

The legislation also would allow individuals to sue violators for $500 for each incident of unsolicited e-mail or, as Bowen put it, "each slice of spam." However, the offenders would have to be tracked down first, a potentially challenging assignment because spammers often operate from other states and countries.

However, Jennie Bretschneider, an assistant to Bowen, said the state Department of Justice is experienced in pursuing and prosecuting out-of-state businesses that have broken California laws.

Complaining e-mail recipients also would be entitled to recover reasonable costs and attorney fees. In addition, the judge hearing such a lawsuit would be empowered to levy an additional $250 penalty, revenues from which would finance law enforcement efforts to catch high-tech criminals.

The bill also would scrap the state's current system in which online marketers can freely send unsolicited e-mail to Internet users unless they are instructed by the user not to do so. Instead, e-mail advertisers would be required to obtain a recipient's consent before an ad was sent unless the two parties had a prior business relationship.

Bowen said online junk mail is not only obnoxious, but it also can be costly to businesses in lost productivity, purchases of software filters and the hiring of "help desk" technicians to field calls from angry consumers.

She cited a recent study by Ferris Research, a San Francisco-based industry consulting organization, which estimated that spam will cost companies in the United States $10 billion this year.

A second study, by Jupiter Research of Darien, Conn., reported that e-mail users received about 140 billion pieces of spam in 2002, a figure estimated to reach 645 billion by 2007, translating into 3,900 unsolicited e-mails per user.

The bill was supported by a coalition of law enforcement, consumer protection, civic and business interests, including the influential California Retailers Assn. It was opposed by the Internet Alliance -- a trade group of online advertisers -- the American Electronics Assn. and the Direct Marketing Assn.

One California company -- Challenger One, an online retailer -- warned that the bill would needlessly embroil "legitimate" advertisers and marketers in "frivolous lawsuits."

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