December 8, 2003 4:46 PM PST

Congress OKs antispam legislation

The U.S. Congress on Monday gave final approval to the first federal law regulating spam, which President Bush has indicated he will sign before the end of the year.

The unanimous approval by the House of Representatives ends a tumultuous process that stretched over more than six years and was marked by more than a dozen competing bills, all of which took different approaches to the ever-growing problem of unsolicited commercial e-mail.

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The U.S. Congress gives final approval to the first federal law regulating spam, which President Bush has indicated he will sign before the end of the year.

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Among many provisions, it requires that marketers include "a functioning return" address or a link to a Web form capable of accepting unsubscribe requests. Critics have said it ultimately will fail to have much of an effect on the amount of spam reaching people's in-boxes, in part because of the volume of spam coming from overseas.

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The final version of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (Can-Spam) Act represents a compromise aimed at eliminating the most egregious tactics used by spammers, such as forging e-mail headers and sending unsolicited pornographic advertisements. It requires that marketers include "a functioning return" address or a link to a Web form capable of accepting unsubscribe requests.

Supporters of the legislation said that the growing problem of spam, and the amount of money it costs U.S. businesses, meant urgent action was necessary. "It's been a long time coming, and it was a lot of work to get it there," said Chris Fitzgerald, spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "But this is the first national law to crack down on kingpin spammers and to help protect Americans from unwanted and often offensive e-mail."

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Critics have said that Can-Spam, and spam legislation in general, ultimately will fail to have much of an effect on the amount of spam reaching people's in-boxes, in part because of the volume of spam coming from overseas. The agenda of a United Nations summit this week in Geneva urges governments to "take appropriate action on spam at national and international levels."

But Fitzgerald said Can-Spam will have a practical effect.

"This is the real deal," he said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for us to crack down on some of the worst offenders, who send thousands and thousands of e-mails a day and have no relationship with the consumers they're e-mailing and fill people's e-mail in-boxes with offensive spam. I think this bill is going to have a real effect in reducing spam."

Can-Spam has been bouncing back and forth this fall between the two corners of Capitol Hill. After the Senate voted for an initial version in October, the House of Representatives approved a second on Nov. 22, and the Senate OK'd the final draft Nov. 25.

All three versions of Can-Spam are similar, and all represent a compromise that is not as far-reaching as some antispam advocates had urged. They take an "opt out" approach that does not ban bulk, unsolicited e-mail advertisements but pre-empts state laws like California's that do--a crucial concern for direct marketers.

The final version of Can-Spam differs from its predecessors in that it broadens the definition of what qualifies as spam sent to mobile devices, and it makes it easier for state attorneys general to seek injunctions against spammers engaged in header forgery or who bounced mail through networks "accessed without authorization." No version of Can-Spam applies to spam sent by political, religious or nonprofit groups.

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I am so happy to hear about this. I mean, who isn't? Of course, it's only a small step, but at least it's one in the right direction. I have to admit that I'm worried about how this will be enforced, though. Oh, well. I just hope this kind of thing doesn't go too far and start censoring sites like 3423.com that seem pointless at first but are actually quite interesting if one cares to take a closer look.
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