WASHINGTON – Computer users may soon see fewer of those annoying e-mail advertisements offering pornography and products to boost weight-loss, sexual drive and credit ratings in their inboxes.
Congress is debating several bills aimed at curbing unsolicited commercial e-mail, commonly known as spam (search).
Although some say no one bill can really help cut down on irritating spam, experts agree something has to be done.
"The problem's gotten very severe and if the industry doesn't act to solve it, the lawmakers are going to step in -- you can count on that," said Wayne Crews, director of technology policy at the Cato Institute (search).
"Spam is about to kill the 'killer app' of the Internet -- specifically, consumer use of e-mail and e-commerce," Federal Trade Commissioner Orson Swindle said last week at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing.
The FTC estimates that at least 40 percent of all e-mail is spam, costing $10 billion annually. In 2002, the FTC received from consumers up to 47,000 spam e-mails a day. This year, that number has reached as many as 130,000 a day.
The Senate Commerce Committee (search) on June 19 unanimously passed a bill sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont., that says all spam must include a valid return e-mail address so recipients can opt-out of receiving mail from that company. It also says Internet service providers can sue to keep unlawful spam from their networks; illegal spammers can be fined up to $1 million; and states can sue.
According to the bill, the FTC would determine whether a national "do-not-spam" list effectively canned the spam. The Federal Communications Commission (search) would have to figure out how consumers can keep porn spam from their kids.
"This is a major step for us and I think it's clear from its unanimous passage in committee and from the industry support we've seen that there is strong backing for this bill both in and out of the Senate," Burns said.
That bill seems to have widespread support among the business community.
"I think that has very good chance of getting through," said Joe Rubin, director of congressional relations for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, forecasting a House and Senate bill could be hammered out in conference committee "within a few months."
Other bills are also pending. One House bill by Rep. Richard Burr R-N.C., House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is similar to the Burns-Wyden bill.
Rep. Heather Wilson, D-N.M., re-introduced a bill June 18 that would enable consumers to opt out of all commercial e-mail and would criminalize sending e-mails with false origins. Violators could face up to two years in prison and $250,000 fines.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., sponsored a bill that would, among other things, pay a bounty for the first person to track down a spammer who violates opt-out requirements.
A bill by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., would create a national "No-Spam registry" and require "ADV" -- short for "advertisement" -- to be included in the subject line. It also demands a special labeling for porn, the latter provision drawing the backing of the Christian Coalition.
"We're supportive about it because we care about the family," said Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs.
Most experts agree that what's needed is a mixed bag of antidotes, including legislation, stronger enforcement powers for ISPs and governments, and filtering technologies.
"I think that everybody involved in the spam fight on Capitol Hill is going into this with their eyes open and they realize there's no silver bullet," said Dave Baker, vice president of law and public policy for ISP Earthlink. "We have to all fight spam together on several fronts."
But some say none of the bills do much to counter the problem.
"You're just going to send the bad actors overseas who will continue to send spam to us," Crews said. "You create a body of obligations … hurdles for companies to meet who are already doing things anyway."
Many ISPs -- such as Microsoft, Earthlink and Yahoo -- are already stumbling over themselves to offer the next best spam-fighting tool.
"We're concerned about unwanted e-mail reaching our customers and we want to do everything we can to help ensure our customers have control when it comes to their inboxes," said Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith.
MSN Hotmail tightened restrictions on the number of outbound messages that could be sent. Brightmail's anti-spam technology is used by ISPs like MSN, EarthLink, BellSouth and VerizonOnline.
Earthlink's new "spamBlocker" virtually eliminates spam from the inbox by keeping out all messages from senders not approved by the recipient.
The effort has worked to some extent. Yahoo Mail's "SpamGuard" stopped five times more unsolicited e-mails this March than at the same time last year. In November 2002, Earthlink reported that it blocked 250 million pieces of spam. AOL has blocked more than 1 billion spam messages in a single day.
"ISPs have a vested interest in fighting spam and we've been fighting, we haven't been waiting for legislation," Baker said. "It's a pain to get your e-mail box filled up with ads … people are sick of it."