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No Appetite for Spam

October 24, 2003

The anti-spam bill passed in the Senate on Wednesday would crack down on unsolicited e-mail in the right ways. It would outlaw most of the insidious methods used by spammers, such as "dictionary" attacks, in which automated software generates millions of permutations of e-mail addresses in the hope of getting a few hits. It would require the Federal Trade Commission to begin planning a national registry of e-mail addresses of people who don't want to receive spam, modeled on the "do-not-call" list recently established to thwart telemarketers. The worst violators would face ferocious penalties: up to five years in prison and $1 million in fines and monetary damages.

The bill, S 877 by Sens. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would also give senators something to show their unhappy constituents in the coming election year. However, unless House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) presses his committee heads to pass a companion to S 877 now, the 13 billion junk e-mails sent every day will continue to legally flow, crashing servers, pushing porn on children and wasting corporate-employee time, among other things.

Numerous anti-spam bills have been introduced in Congress in the last five years. Not one has reached the president's desk. Part of the problem is the difficulty of writing laws for fast-evolving technology. The bigger roadblock is friends of the online marketing industry in elected office.

Two House committee chairmen, Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), won't even allow a vote on the House version of S 877, which is HR 2515, by Reps. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) and Gene Green (D-Texas). Tauzin and Sensenbrenner are flogging a toothless alternative, HR 2214. It has enough loopholes to toss a supercomputer through, even failing to clearly define "unsolicited e-mail."

Any of the federal measures would preempt a tougher California anti-spam law that would otherwise take effect here in January. However, a single national standard for fighting junk e-mail would be more effective than even the toughest state laws. But the California law has already accomplished a lot: Most anti-spam campaigners credit it for prompting the Senate to act.

People are sick of incessant marketing. Look, for example, at the 51 million of them who have so far signed up for the FTC's do-not-call registry for telephone marketers. The heat should now fall on Hastert, Tauzin and Sensenbrenner. Americans hate spam and they're not happy about legislative dithering, either.

To Take Action: Rep. Hastert, (202) 225-2976 or dhastert@mail.house.gov; Rep. Sensenbrenner, (202) 225-5101 or sensen09@mail .house.gov; Rep. Tauzin, (202) 225-4031, no e-mail listed.

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