- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Everyone who has e-mail also has a spam problem — a mailbox regularly filled with unsolicited messages offering everything from discount prescription drugs to overseas business opportunities. Spam drives consumers as crazy as telephone telemarketers, and costs companies billions in lost labor. In response to those concerns, legislators gave final approval to the Can Spam Act this week. President Bush has promised to sign the bill. He should do so, even though it is scarcely a silver bullet for spam.

The act will authorize, but not require, the Federal Trade Commission to set up a do-not-spam list similar to the do-not-call registry already on the books. It will allow consumers to opt out of unsolicited e-mails and prohibit the senders from using false return addresses or misleading subject lines. In addition, the legislation will prohibit spammers from gathering e-mail addresses off Web sites. For serious offenders, it prescribes penalties of up to five years in prison.

Yet, spam could increase in spite of the president’s signature, since the legislation is still limited by three broad areas: constitutional, technological and legal. While some freedom of speech issues have been raised by the bill, constitutional concerns seem the least problematic. Technological limitations loom larger, since more than two-thirds of spam is thought to be sent through hijacked computers, unbeknownst to their owners who have been victimized by computer viruses. Enforcing the measure will also be difficult, since spam crosses national boundaries in an instant. Moreover, no nation is responsible for more than 20 percent of all spam.

Those concerns have led some critics to claim that the bill is little more than window-dressing. They argue that only technology, such as anti-spamming software, can solve the technology-based problem. Other critics claim that the legislation did not go nearly far enough, and, even worse, has hurt consumers overriding the tougher anti-spam legislation that some states have already established.

Consumers can already take several common-sense steps to avoid spam, such as checking the privacy policy of a Web site before passing on their personal e-mail address and not displaying their e-mail address on public pages like chat rooms and online directories. Once the bill becomes law, consumers can start replying to unwanted e-mails, asking to be removed from such lists. Regulators are also assembling a spam database (deceptive and unwanted e-mails can be sent to [email protected]).

Ultimately, consumers still have the responsibility for protecting their personal information — including their e-mail addresses. While they should take advantage of the legislation, they should not expect spam-free mailboxes anytime soon.

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