- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Florida wants to punish senders of unwanted e-mail, but some say lawmakers are not getting tough enough given the state’s reputation as a haven for spammers.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign an antispam bill that is only slightly stronger than existing federal law, and much weaker than laws in other states that call for stiffer fines and jail time for spammers.

Florida lawmakers last week passed a bill that would outlaw unsolicited e-mail containing false or misleading advertisements, allowing the attorney general and Internet providers to collect up to $500 for each e-mail ad that violates the law. The bill is similar to the federal Can-Spam act but lacks criminal provisions, surprising some critics who noted Florida’s reputation as the favored place for spammers to work.

Three of the top 10 spammers in the world live in Florida, according to Spamhaus, a British organization that tracks spam activity. Several other top spammers are thought to have ties to the state.

The federal Can-Spam act allows state attorneys general to fine spammers up to $250 for each illegal e-mail ad. It also allows for criminal charges and jail time, but only the U.S. Department of Justice can pursue such charges. This has prompted lawmakers in some states, including Virginia and Maryland, to pass bills allowing their own attorneys general to file criminal charges, as well as seize spammers’ assets.

Florida’s proposed law would allow only for civil suits and “does not add much weight to the spam-fighting scales,” said David Kramer, an Internet lawyer in Palo Alto, Calif. “It appears that everything prohibited under the statute is already prohibited under existing federal or state law.”

In addition, Florida’s Office of the Attorney General is not expected to receive additional staff or money to target spammers, nor did it request any.

“That is perhaps the strongest indictment that the law is merely paying lip service to the problem,” Mr. Kramer said.

A spokesman for Sterling, Va.-based America Online, the world’s largest Internet provider, called the bill a “step in the right direction.” But the company said it prefers laws such as Virginia’s, which have stiff criminal penalties and allow for asset seizures. America Online was instrumental in gathering evidence against three persons indicted under Virginia’s antispam law in December.

Florida lawmakers said they are cracking down on the worst kinds of spam, including messages with false return addresses and false routing information. They noted that the bill allows Attorney General Charlie Crist to sue those who send spam into Florida from other states. Furthermore, the bill could be used by Internet providers, which have struggled to pursue civil charges against spammers living in Florida because the state had no law against spam.

“This really gets us where we need to be,” said Rep. Anna Holliday “Holly” Benson, Pensacola Republican and lead sponsor of the bill. “If we find we need to do something more, then we will take another look at it.”

Any kind of unsolicited commercial e-mail is generally considered spam, and it makes up nearly two-thirds of all e-mail sent worldwide, according to most estimates. Business groups say spam costs companies upward of $10 billion in services and lost productivity each year.

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