Maryland Lawmakers Seek to Criminalize 'Spam'

Two Maryland state legislators are taking on junk e-mail with a new bill that would make sending the annoying, unsolicited "spam" messages a crime.

"Every e-mail user has endured the annoyance of being inundated with advertisements to enlarge body parts they don't even have, for disgusting pornography, and for get-rich quick schemes," said Democratic Delegate Neil Quinter, chief House sponsor of the bill at a news conference to introduce the legislation Tuesday.

It is "costly for businesses" and reduces worker productivity, said Sen. Robert Garagiola, the bill's Senate sponsor. Garagiola released figures showing junk e-mail costs U.S. corporations $8.9 billion, and workers waste 4.5 seconds on each one. Nearly 60 percent of e-mail is spam, according to his figures from Brightmail Inc. (search), and 80 percent of e-mail received through nationwide AOL is unsolicited.

Microsoft, the Internet Commerce Coalition (search) and Time Warner, owner of America Online (search), support the legislation.

"This would provide the Attorney General with more specific tools to go after spammers and also prosecute out-of-state spammers," Quinter said.

Current law prohibits initiating or conspiring to transmit a third party's Internet domain without permission, obscuring the origin of the transmission and putting false or misleading information into an e-mail subject line.

The new legislation establishes misdemeanor crimes of knowingly using a protected computer to relay or retransmit commercial electronic mail deceptively and falsifying header information in multiple electronic mail messages. The deceptions would have to cause at least $500 in losses in one year.

Penalties for violations would be scaled to the number of messages transmitted, with the maximum sanction set at five years in prison and $10,000 fine.

Repeated "spamming" with a prior felony conviction would be considered a felony under the proposed law, with penalties also increasing in severity to a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.

Jim Halpert, Internet Commerce Coalition general counsel, said the bill would provide "meaningful penalties" for distributing unsolicited junk e-mail.

"All companies have been forced to devote major resources to address a hard core group of hackers and spammers," said Halpert at the press gathering.

There is no free speech issue with the legislation, Halpert said because it deals with trespassing of property. In addition, he said, misleading commercial speech is not protected.