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Congress has hard time stomaching e-mail spam


By From Rick Lockridge
CNN Technology Correspondent

(CNN) -- The United States government has been expected to crack down this year on spam -- unsolicited commercial e-mail. But a tough anti-spam bill is faltering in the House and even a milder Senate version faces plenty of opposition.

Sen. Ron Wyden says he's frustrated with the lack of legislative progress against junk e-mail. "The fact is, technology is now on the side of the spammer," says the Oregon Democrat, adding that his constituents want that situation changed.

Wyden and bill co-sponsor Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, have introduced the so-called Spam Act, which would require bulk e-mailers to identify themselves; provide a valid return e-mail address; be honest about the e-mail contents; and give the recipients an easy way to prevent further contact.

Violators could be fined $10 for every inbox they reach, up to a maximum of $500,000.

"Our mainstream position is we want to empower consumers," Wyden says.

Marketers demand fairness

But Patricia Faley of the Direct Marketing Association counters that businesses have rights too, including the right to contact consumers without first obtaining their permission.

"We call it the 'one bite at the apple' rule," she says. "Give me one chance to show you what I have to offer you, and if you don't like it, then I won't contact you again."

Officials of Internet service providers (ISPs) say they'd love to reduce their spam intake.

"Let's put it this way: We hate spam," says Dave Baker, who handles legal matters for EarthLink, one of the country's biggest ISPs.

With junk messages that arrive in a conventional e-mailbox, the organization that sends it bears the costs. But spam costs almost nothing to send. The costs are borne by the ISP, which must carry the traffic, and the end user whose e-mailbox is clogged.

Under the proposed federal legislation, ISPs like EarthLink would have the job of deciding which e-mails are spam and which are not.

Recipe for trouble?

The Cato Institute's Wayne Crews says that provision is a recipe for trouble.

"If you try to root out commercial e-mail, are you also going to hit nonprofit e-mail? Girl Scout cookies, for example?" he asks.

Representatives of the Bush Administration say they know they have a complicated issue on their hands.

"The president has nothing but the deepest respect for all the Constitution's provisions," says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "It's the First Amendment that deals with freedom of speech.

"At the same time," Fleischer says, George W. Bush "believes that consumers should be empowered and individuals should not be subject to numerous or unwanted spam messages."

The Internet is full of hiding places. And as Yogi Berra might say, there aren't any rules -- and people are breaking them all the time.

• Spam Laws: CAN SPAM Act of 2001

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