May 1, 2003 12:12 AM PDT

Lawmakers: It's open season on spam

WASHINGTON--Official Washington is officially fed up with spam.

The deluge of unsolicited bulk e-mail has snarled networks, clogged servers and created such a public nuisance that new laws are necessary, participants concluded during the first day of a three-day government summit on spam.

Exactly how a law might be worded will be discussed later this week, but companies told the Federal Trade Commission that they need help urgently. AOL Time Warner's America Online, for instance, said its spam volume has doubled in the last two months, with more than 2 billion unsolicited e-mail messages arriving every day.

For Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., it's personal: He told the crowd that his 14-year-old daughter was inundated with spam promoting pornographic Web sites and that he was "utterly amazed" to learn that no federal criminal laws existed to punish that practice. In response, Schumer said, he asked his staff to draft a set of bills that would create a national "do not e-mail" list and levy criminal penalties on repeat offenders.

The first federal antispam bill was introduced in 1997, and after six years of closed-door wrangling and repeated delays, Congress still has not acted. But consumer outrage and complaints from legitimate businesses have been keeping pace with the growth of bulk e-mail. Now it's open season on spam in Washington.

Schumer said his legislation is still being drafted but likely will have three levels of penalties: a warning, then $5,000-a-day fines, and finally jail time of up to two years for repeat offenders. He predicted it was a certainty that a comprehensive antispam law would be enacted by the end of 2004.


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In addition to Schumer's proposed legislation, which he said will be finished in May:

• This week, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., proposed a second bill that would require commercial advertisers to tag messages with "ADV:" if they do not have a pre-existing relationship with the recipient. Violators could be sued by the FTC or an Internet service provider.

• The FTC said its analysis of 1,000 spam messages suggests that two-thirds of the bulk mail piling up in in-boxes contains claims that are probably false. E-mail offering investment and business opportunities was even more likely to be fraudulent, with about 96 percent of such messages containing false or misleading information, according to the FTC's estimate.

• About 79 percent of Americans want ISPs to treat pornographic spam differently than other types of unsolicited e-mail, according to a survey commissioned by Bigfoot Interactive that is scheduled to be released Thursday. The random digit-dialing survey of 1,023 people, conducted by RoperASW, also found that 38 percent of respondents said legitimate e-mail was accidentally lost.

• Spam foes have long sought national legislation to rein in unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail, but efforts have been slow to bear fruit amid free-speech concerns and opposition from marketing groups. As a result, states have taken the lead in crafting antispam measures so far, with Virginia this week enacting additional criminal penalties for high-volume spammers who forge "From:" lines.

• In April, senators Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., reintroduced a bill that they first drafted in 1999 that would make it a federal crime to use a false address when sending spam.

In the afternoon, panelists warned that spammers were using not just open mail relays, but open proxies to send bulk messages near-anonymously. Open proxies typically are misconfigured Web servers on a digital subscriber line or cable modem that permit spammers to use them as relay points for outgoing e-mail and cloak their identity in the process.

Matt Sergeant, an antispam technologist at MessageLabs, said people who accidentally configure their computers to be open proxies often didn't mean to do so. "They don't get to find out that they've been blacklisted," Sergeant said. "They didn't know they have an insecure system. So they can't solve the problem."

Sergeant estimated that the number of open proxies is doubling every five to six months.

Scott Richter, president of online marketing firm OptinRealBig.com, said his company only contacts people who have expressed a desire to receive information or have an existing relationship with a client. Still, Richter said, mail providers such as Yahoo and AOL have made it too easy for users to report legitimate e-mail as spam.

"They're reporting e-mail as spam that isn't spam because they've been enticed to do it," Richter said. "There's no way for us to respond. That's a big problem in the industry. The people sending the mail don't have the opportunity." He complained of the type of antispam activist who "tries to do collateral damage or force you off an ISP" as the result of an unfounded allegation.

Thursday's sessions are devoted to calculating the cost of spam and evaluating how big a problem wireless spam has become. On Friday, panelists will discuss legal means to target spammers, including lawsuits, federal laws and--because nearly half of spam comes from outside the United States--how international efforts might work.

 

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