- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2001

Unsolicited e-mail, better known as "Spam," after the canned luncheon staple, was the subject of debate in Congress last Thursday. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to evaluate two anti-spam bills, H.R. 718, sponsored by Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican, and H.R. 1017, sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.

Both bills would make it a crime to send unsolicited commercial e-mail using an address the sender knows is false or misleading. Mr. Goodlatte's bill, the "Anti-Spamming Act of 2001," would slap violators with a fine of up to $15,000 per violation or $10 per e-mail per violation, whichever is greater. Also, the spammer would be responsible for repayment of the monetary losses suffered by victims.

In a statement before the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Goodlatte said that spam, which is rising in volume, could disrupt legitimate Internet e-mail service, clogging service provider's systems and harassing users.

"Even more disturbing are the numerous examples that I receive from my own constituents of the increasing amount of spam that is pornographic in nature," Mr. Goodlatte said. "This pornographic spam, opened innocently by the recipient, often disguises the subject of the e-mail and includes a link that takes the recipient to a pornographic Web site. E-commerce will never reach its full potential if consumers and their children cannot utilize e-mail without the fear of being unwillingly transported into the seamier side of the Internet."

Mrs. Wilson's bill would also outlaw the practice of "spoofing," or using false addresses to send spam. In addition, it would set a penalty for continuing to send junk e-mail after someone has asked for it to stop and allow Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, to have a junk e-mail policy and sue spammers for $500 per message if they violate the policy.

"As consumers, we should have the power to stop getting junk e-mail on our computers or on the computers of our children," said Mrs. Wilson when she introduced her bill, which has been lauded by some ISPs. "This bill will give parents and consumers the power to say enough is enough and close their inbox to annoying and obscene junk e-mail."

Although Mrs. Wilson's bill, which passed the House in the last Congress, has more co-sponsors 104 than Mr. Goodlatte's, which has four, some are lining up behind the Goodlatte measure. Mark Lackritz, president of the Securities Industry Association believes the Wilson bill's provisions are too widely drawn.

"For the new cyber-economy to flourish, the government, market operators, and regulators must allow electronic commerce to grow in an environment driven by markets, unburdened by outmoded regulations and excessive regulatory red tape," Mr. Lackritz told the panel. "Any restrictions on the use of the Internet should be very narrowly tailored to address a proven problem, not a perceived one."

Paul Misener, a vice president at Amazon.com, echoed that view. Mr. Misener, testifying on behalf of the National Retail Federation, said the Wilson bill "goes too far to limit such practices and would inadvertently constrain legitimate business activities."

Both Mr. Lackritz and Mr. Misener said their groups would look more favorably on the Goodlatte bill, which they said addresses key issues without putting too much of a burden on business.

Yet an open question, to one observer at least, is whether there needs to be any federal legislation at all. Wayne Crews, director of technology studies for the Cato Institute, a think tank that supports limited government, told the panel that the marketplace, not Congress, should police the matter.

"If the idea is to target the most annoying kinds of spam, laws will simply not be enforceable. The bad guys will just go offshore, out of the reach of legislation," Mr. Crews said. "The effect of a spam law will be to create regulatory hoops for mainstream companies that typically are not the greatest offenders. Legitimate companies, and especially small businesses, will likely bear the brunt of the rules.

"Spam is just marketing, and there are different levels of spam guilt. Spam is much less invasive than door-to-door selling, but we don't outlaw that. It's best to allow people to decide for themselves whether or not to entertain sales pitches," he added.

Mr. Crews believes that users can find many ways to opt out of spam, including services such as www.removeyou.com, which takes people's names off e-mail lists. He told me that some on the Judiciary panel seemed impressed with his points, although there's enough of a groundswell for such a measure that one bill may move forward.

Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern time, on www.adrenalineradio.com.

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