November 22, 2003 6:28 AM PST

House passes antispam bill

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve antispam legislation that could end more than six years of failed attempts to create a federal law restricting unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The measure aims to curb unwanted e-mail advertisements for Viagra-like products and get-rich pitches by imposing fines and jail time for offenders. It passed by a vote of 392-5 early Saturday, following an all-night session of the House. The Senate is expected to follow next week.


What's new:
The House votes overwhelmingly to approve antispam legislation, potentially ending six years of failed attempts to enact a federal law restricting unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Bottom line:
If signed into law, junk e-mail essentially would be treated like junk postal mail, with nonfraudulent e-mail legalized until the recipient chooses to unsubscribe.

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Americans "will have the right to say 'Take me off your list, I don't want this in my house,'" said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. Another legislator, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the bill "protects our kids from being unwittingly exposed to such garbage that may pop up in the family's in-box."

President Bush has indicated he will sign the measure, titled the "Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act" (Can-Spam). On Friday evening, the Justice Department and the Commerce Department praised Can-Spam as "establishing a framework of technological, administrative, civil and criminal tools" that provide consumers with options to reduce the volume of unwanted e-mail.

Can-Spam appears to be a compromise that's not as far-reaching as some antispam advocates had urged. It permits, but does not require, the Federal Trade Commission to establish a "do not spam" registry, overrides many state laws, and imposes an "opt out" standard instead of a more stringent "opt in" requirement.

If the measure becomes law, certain forms of spam will be officially legalized. The final bill says spammers may send as many "commercial electronic mail messages" as they like--as long as the messages are obviously advertisements with a valid U.S. postal address or P.O. box and an unsubscribe link at the bottom. Junk e-mail essentially would be treated like junk postal mail, with nonfraudulent e-mail legalized until the recipient chooses to unsubscribe.

Among the five dissenters in the final vote, which was tallied at 3:23 a.m. PST after a night of discussions about Medicare legislation, were two Democratic legislators from the heart of Silicon Valley: Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda. Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Texas, also voted against the bill.

The bill would pre-empt more restrictive state laws, including one that California enacted in September. That law established an opt-in standard and was scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1. With final passage of this bill, the core of California's law would never take effect.

The Senate approved its version of an antispam bill in October, but the House deadlocked between competing bills supported by Tauzin and Sensenbrenner. Partisan squabbling between Democrats and Republicans earlier in the year over who could claim credit for an antispam law also delayed the process. In July, bickering erupted between the two major parties at a meeting of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees.

Other sections of the bill prohibit the following:

• Falsifying e-mail header information or using either a mail server or open relay to "deceive or mislead recipients" about the origin of a commercial e-mail message. Also outlawed is registering for "5 or more" e-mail accounts or "2 or more domain names" with false information and using them to send commercial e-mail messages. Penalties include up to three years in prison for a first offense.

• Sending commercial e-mail with deceptive subject lines that "would be likely to mislead a recipient."

• Sending commercial e-mail that does not include "a functioning return" address or a link to a Web form that is capable of accepting unsubscribe requests.

• E-mail address "harvesting" by crawling Web sites and automated guessing of e-mail addresses by trying, and so on.

• Using automated methods such as scripts to sign up for free Web-based e-mail accounts such as ones provided by Hotmail or Yahoo.

• Sending commercial e-mail with "sexually oriented material" unless it includes a label to be devised by the FTC. That requirement does not apply to opt-in lists. Violations can be punished by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In a prepared statement, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said the bill "will help consumers regain control of their inboxes and support e-mail service providers in their battle to contain the spam menace.

"Microsoft particularly supports the strong enforcement provisions, and the ban on falsifying the origin of e-mail solicitations and illegally obtaining lists of e-mail addresses, both of which will help Internet service providers prosecute spammers."


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