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Congress Poised to Curb Spam

The first federal law against unsolicited e-mails could lead to fines and prison terms for their purveyors.

November 22, 2003|Jube Shiver Jr. | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Hoping to curb e-mail pitches for pornography, get-rich schemes and weight-loss elixirs, the House was poised Friday to approve tough limits on spam.

Lawmakers cobbled together strong bipartisan support for an anti-spam law after trying for nearly six years to more closely regulate the billions of unsolicited e-mails that overwhelm in-boxes every day.

A vote on the bill was expected Friday but hadn't happened as of 11:30 p.m. EST.

Similar to the "Can Spam" legislation the Senate unanimously approved last month, the House measure would impose fines of up to $250 per e-mail and prison terms of up to five years. It also would prohibit deceptive subject headings and require e-mail marketers to include a valid return address to allow recipients to opt out.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission would have the authority to set up a "do-not-spam" list similar to the popular "do-not-call" registry allowing people to block calls from telemarketers.

In addition, the House version directs the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission to write rules regulating spam sent to mobile phones with text messaging.

House Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) said that House and Senate negotiators would work out differences in the two bills and predicted that anti-spam legislation would reach the White House before Congress adjourns in December.

President Bush has not indicated whether he would sign the bill, but policy watchers said his endorsement was likely -- particularly because of the similarities to the do-not-call legislation Bush championed this fall.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) said the rules would create a climate in which people look "forward to opening our in-boxes in the morning because we'll have notes from our friends rather than herbal supplements and mortgage offers."

One sign of how exasperating spam can be: A Silicon Valley computer programmer was arrested Thursday for threatening to torture and kill employees of a company he blamed for sending a barrage of pop-up advertising and spam promising to enlarge his penis.

"I go to their Web site and start complaining to them, 'Would you please, please, please stop bothering me,' " Charles Booher, 44, told Reuters. "It just sort of escalated ... and I sort of lost my cool at that point."

Federal lawmakers have been under intense pressure to pass national spam rules. Online marketers want a national standard rather than an agglomeration of state rules.

Few believe laws will stop spammers, who have thwarted a range of technological and legal efforts to block their messages.

Forged headers and computerized routing data make it difficult to track down and prosecute wrongdoers.

What's more, spam is cheap and easy to send. Sophisticated software scours chat rooms and Web sites for e-mail addresses.

A spam operation can be run with a couple of personal computers and an Internet connection.

"I do not expect this bill to solve the total problem of unwanted spam," said Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee.

But, Dingell said, "this is a crucial first step.... It will stop much wrongdoing."

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