FTC cooking up a spam attack

The Federal Trade Commission is gearing up for a battle against unsolicited commercial e-mail, known as spam.
Howard Beales, the director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said Thursday that the agency will launch a "systematic attack" on deceptive spam and opt-out notices. Beales, who spoke at the 2nd Annual Privacy & Data Security Summit in Washington, D.C., added that the FTC will announce "law enforcement actions" regarding spam in a couple of weeks.

The campaign comes as the FTC prepares for its National Consumer Protection Week, beginning Feb. 3, which will highlight growing concerns about privacy. Although the FTC would not comment on the details of its plan, Beales' announcement has received praise from online privacy advocates, who have been pushing for effective federal anti-spam legislation.

"It's welcome news," said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, an anti-spam organization. "The FTC started looking at this probably in 1997, and to my knowledge they hadn't yet broadened any enforcement action...so I hope to see it as soon as possible."

Catlett said he expects the FTC to crack down on fraudulent return addresses. He noted that most spam has false information in the return address or the opt-out instructions.

Spam may be one of the most abusive by-products of the Web, and controlling it has proven a slippery task. Federal lawmakers have struggled to create effective anti-spam legislation, leaving consumers to seek protection under state laws. Early this month, for example, Californians won a victory in the fight against spam when a California appeals court upheld the state's anti-spam law, ruling that it does not violate a clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Meanwhile, technology has offered only limited relief. Companies such as Microsoft have upgraded their services to include spam filters, but anti-spam advocates have been critical of such filters, saying no technology is perfect.

Truste, a nonprofit privacy group, is among those working to police spam. Under a new plan, e-mail sent by volunteer "trusted sender certified" companies will contain a seal that signifies the message is compliant with Truste's privacy rules.

In addition, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) plans to announce next week its "Commercial Solicitation Online Guidelines," which will require its 5,000 members to follow specific privacy standards. The guidelines will require members to let consumers opt out of receiving e-mail solicitations as well as of the sharing or selling of e-mail addresses to third parties.

In regard to the FTC announcement, the DMA said it hopes the agency will draw a line between spam and legitimate marketers.

"Anything that separates legitimate marketing messages from deceptive (ones) is something we would stand behind, so that in the consumers' minds they know what the difference is," said Christina Duffney, a spokeswoman for the DMA. "That would help the industry rather than hurt the industry."