October 25, 1996 7:15 PM PDT

Spam label laws sought

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Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology has an answer for curbing junk email: labels.

Rather than attempting to stop junk emailers, which might restrain free speech, the group wants consumers to be able to just tune them out.

In a letter circulated to several online discussion groups, the group's director James Love asks Netizens to comment on a proposal that would require junk emailers to label their messages with a code, such as #ADV#. The code would not only tip off receivers that a particular message is in fact advertising, but would also allow them to filter out any such messages.

The group plans to eventually petition a federal agency, such as the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission, with the proposal.

Love admits that the idea isn't a new one, but says it has never been formally presented to a federal agency as a solution to the deluge of junk email that has prompted consumer complaints and several lawsuits in the last few months.

In fact, it was the plight of Love's own hearing-impaired mother that interested him in the issue. According to Love, the 70-year old woman has found it increasingly difficult to sort through the hundreds of solicitations clogging the email account she uses instead of a phone.

Discussion participants on one mailing list pointed out that it would be difficult to define what constitutes spam email and harder still to catch and punish those who refuse to label their messages. But Love says the labels would only be required for messages that meet two criteria: any message that isn't requested by the receiver and that is commercial in nature.

"Political speech and most other forms of Internet speech are protected under the First Amendment," said Love.

Love agreed, however, that the labeling law will be toothless if regulatory agencies won't back it up. It may even require new legislation, he said. "There's this big feeling that any government regulation of the Net is inherently evil and to be avoided," said Love. "This is an instance where it's appropriate for the government to step in."

 

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