If approved, bill would force e-marketers to include a return address that allows recipients to delete their addresses from databases. Find out more, Friday 5/17 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on 'Tech Live.'
By Peter Barnes, Tech Live Washington, DC bureau chief
May 17, 2002
Thanks to an angry senator, Congress appears closer to approving legislation to protect consumers from unsolicited email, commonly called spam. Critics, however say the measure is weak. "Tech Live" reports tonight.
Like many email users, Senator Conrad Burns, R-Montana, hates spam messages. He says he gets "about 46 a day! A day! It was unbelievable as far as I was concerned, and you just 'X' them all out."
As he was checking his email in his office during an interview, he was hit with yet another one.
"And I cleared that [account] five minutes ago. 'Freebie today. Need a computer? Guaranteed financing available.'"
The flood of spam prompted Burns to launch a new effort this year to convince the Senate to pass legislation that would mandate new consumer protections against unsolicited email. Analysts say it is the first spam bill ever that has a chance of passing the body.
Burns is on the Senate Commerce Committee, where previous spam bills have been blocked.
The committee approved the Burns bill Friday, sending it on for an eventual vote by the full Senate. Burns was helped by an alliance with key Democrats, who took control of the chamber and its committees last year and who have been historically more disposed to pro-consumer legislation.
The Burns measure passed despite intense lobbying by marketing companies.
"We have a legitimate business. It would hurt our business -- it's obviously something we're doing because people are buying things" through spam email, said James Conway, vice president of government relations for the Direct Marketing Association. "We think the problem is one of deceptive practices or fraudulent practices -- that's what should be regulated. As long as the emails are not deceptive, that they're an honest attempt to sell a product or service -- that should be allowed."
The major provision of the Burns bill would require all e-marketers to include a return address in spam that would allow recipients to delete their addresses from spam databases. Right now, only some e-marketers offer that option, called "opt-out." E-marketers would also have to delete addresses in databanks of "affiliate" operations so that consumers would not have to request deletion of every email coming from one company.
"It sends a clear signal to the industry that this unwanted mail that continually comes over in our email boxes has got to stop," Burns said. "What we're trying to do is clean it up. We know that e-commerce [companies], sure, they want to market. But nonetheless, there has to be a way to do it. It 's OK to receive the mail the first time, but why do we have to have three a day?"
Marketing companies instead favor continued self-regulation of spam. They point out that through their consumer website, www.dmaconsumers.org,
they offer email users a service to opt out of databases at 5,000 companies that spam.
The Burns bill would also increase federal fines for unlawful email and allow state attorneys general to sue e-marketers on behalf of consumers in their states.
Supporters say the legislation, if enacted into law, would have the practical effect of giving state and federal investigators more powers to prosecute fraudulent spammers and pornographers who use spam, because legitimate e-marketing companies would comply with the new requirements.
But consumer advocates say the Burns proposals are not enough. They want e-marketers to get a person's prior approval for any email solicitation, a practice known as "opt-in."
"We believe it is important for opt-in protections to be in place," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC. "As with other rights, it only makes sense to ask people permission before you contact them."
Privacy groups also want Congress to allow individual consumers, not just state officials, to sue spammers for violations.
In the House, the two committees recently approved spam legislation, and it is now awaiting a floor vote. Supporters say the House and Senate Commerce Committee actions make prospects better than ever that some kind of spam bill, even a limited one, will end up on the president's desk within the next 18 months.