WASHINGTON – E-mail users seeking relief from spam — unsolicited ads, commercials and promotions that frequently fill up online mailboxes — should not count on help from Congress this year.
The Senate last month unanimously passed a bill that imposes penalties on spammers and allows users to "opt out" of continued spamming. But aides say two House bills as well as the Senate version being considered in the House Energy and Commerce Committee — are unlikely to be debated before Congress adjourns this year's session in time for Thanksgiving.
Some consumer groups say a short delay is fine with them — they are unhappy with the new legislation and want to see it strengthened before a final bill passes.
"We don't believe it goes far enough," John Mozena, co-founder and vice president of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (search), said of the Can Spam Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
"We believe it fails the fundamental test of spam regulation: It doesn’t tell people not to spam ... It makes them stop only if they are asked to stop. At the end of the day it gives every marketer in the country one free shot."
Marketers, on the other hand, say the Senate bill is just what the e-shopper ordered. Trevor Hughes, executive director of Network Advertising Initiative (search), an organization that works with marketers to develop a framework for self-regulation of online marketing tactics, said the Senate bill will codify the rules and help ensure legitimate businesses are not hurt by various state laws that define their e-mail as spam.
"We wanted to make sure that whatever legislative standard emerged recognized that spam is bad, but e-mail is good. We didn’t want a standard that in the process of killing spam would kill off the legitimate use of e-mail as well," Hughes said.
Under the Senate-proposed bill, senders of marketing e-mail would be required to include a return address so the consumer can tell them to stop sending mail; unsolicited messages would have to include clear notification that the message is an advertisement; and spammers could face penalties of up to five years in prison for common practices such as hacking into somebody else's computer to send bulk spam or registering for five or more e-mail accounts using false registration information in order to use those accounts to send bulk spam.
"Americans are tired of just watching and fretting over inboxes clogged with unwanted e-mail, and this legislation is an important step toward giving them more control," Wyden said in a statement last month.
Currently, 37 states have their own anti-spam laws. California is enacting the toughest anti-spam law in the nation on Jan. 1. It is an "opt-in" system, meaning consumers must give their permission to receive unsolicited e-mail.
Mozena said that his organization would favor a national version of the California law, but he believes that it would face stiff resistance from the marketing industry, which would consider it too burdensome.
NAI has been active in the legislative process, lobbying aggressively for an overarching bill.
"Legitimate business needs to have clear rules of the road. We really have a cacophony of laws. ... for legitimate companies that represents a legal minefield," Hughes said.
Marketers are concerned, however, that spam is making e-mail an unattractive tool.
"Spam is making our e-mail a red-light district .... If spam is allowed to proliferate, that inbox is going to get more and more clogged with offensive junk and ... the more spam there is, the less value that real estate has for any legitimate company," he said.
Spam accounts for as much as 60 percent of all e-mail traffic and costs businesses and consumers about $10 billion in lost productivity and the costs of investing in anti-spam software.
An October poll by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (search) found that 70 percent of respondents said spam has made being online unpleasant or annoying. Twenty-five percent of respondents said spam is causing them to limit their use of e-mail.
Despite the complaints, spam continues because it pays.
The same poll found that 7 percent of e-mailers, more than 8 million people, report they have ordered a product or service offered in an unsolicited e-mail, and one-third of e-mail users say they have clicked on a link in unsolicited commercial e-mail to get more information.
Spammers have treated efforts to limit their trade as a call to arms. CAUCE has documented cases when spammers have managed to make it look as if CAUCE was sending out spam or endorsing spam.
Tennessee-based Compu-Net Enterprises (search) used to catalogue addresses of e-mail servers that were known sources of spam and send the lists to Internet service providers and network administrators to use to determine which e-mails to refuse. It stopped offering its service after the company suffered a tenfold increase in spam and spammers began forging the company's e-mail addresses to make it look as if spam was coming from Compu-Net.
Hughes said federal legislation will help provide a deterrent to spam, but he doesn't think that it will be the final answer.
Instead, some experts say a combination of technology, laws and consumer efforts can limit spam. They offer e-mail users a few suggestions to reduce the amount of spam they receive.
Among the advice, experts say to use junk mail filters, even though one in six messages filtered out is legitimate and e-mailers may want to review their junk mail list for good e-mails before deleting the folder contents.
They also suggest that people avoid listing e-mail addresses online. If an e-mail address must be posted online, addressees should avoid including the @ symbol, which spammers troll through Web pages looking to find. E-mail posters can try listing their addresses as janesmithATinternetproviderDoTcom or janesmith@NOSPAMinternetprovider.com, for instance.
Another strategy is to maintain multiple e-mail accounts, using one for all personal e-mails and another for registration on news sites and for e-commerce. E-mail users may also want to try selecting addresses with an unusual combination of letters and numbers. That way, they can avoid the strategy spammers use of sending e-mail to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, etc.
"Spam is a multi-faceted and complex problem and we can't look to any one component as a silver bullet," said Hughes.