Anti-Spam Bill Moves Swiftly Through House Committee

A bill banning unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam, was unanimously approved by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce yesterday and will move to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote by the full body.

A week earlier, the telecommunication and the Internet subcommittee passed the Unsolicited Electronic E-Mail Act of 2001, which was originally introduced in the 106th Congress by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-NM, and Rep. Gene Green, D-TX. However, it was introduced late in the session and languished in committee.

The bill, if enacted into law, would require those sending unsolicited commercial e-mail to provide a valid return e-mail address so recipients could opt out of further mailings. The Federal Trade Commission would be charged with policing e-mail and would have the authority to bring legal action against violators. It also would allow Internet service providers to sue spammers in federal court for $500 per message, up to $50,000.

“Our goal with this legislation is to prohibit the advertisement s for online sex sites, get-rich-quick schemes and countless other advertisements that American consumers see flooding into their e-mail accounts every day,” Green said.

The legislation also would enable individuals to sue spammers to block unsolicited e-mail, require spam to be clearly labeled as unsolicited and require ISPs to allow their customers to opt out of spam if the ISP profits from allowing it on its servers.

“The problem with spam is that the receiver pays for e-mail advertisements,” Wilson said. “Junk e-mail is like 'postage due' marketing or telemarketers calling collect.”

However, some trade groups, including the Direct Marketing Association, have lobbied against parts of the legislation. Though the association generally supports the premise of the legislation, particularly the sections that would force spammers to provide accurate return addresses and give consumers a means to opt out, the DMA has problems with the bill.

“The only areas in which we worked with the committee really hard is the provision that allows ISPs to put out a notification that it will opt out of all unsolicited commercial e-mail for all its customers,” said Jerry Cerasale, the DMA's senior vice president of government affairs. “We think opt out should be handled by individual consumers, not the ISP.”

Cerasale said the DMA will continue to lobby Congress to change parts of the legislation before it comes up for a final vote.

There also has been opposition from business groups worried about the legislation's broad reach. Recently, a coalition including the American Bankers Association, the National Retail Federation, Merrill Lynch and Bank of America sent a letter to subcommittee members complaining that the bill's scope raised “serious concerns.” The legislation passed the committee nonetheless.

In a separate but related action, Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-MA, on March 26 asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into corporations sending spam to individuals. They sent a letter to SEC chairwoman Laura Unger, asking her to investigate the “potential loophole” in the privacy-protection provisions of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, a landmark overhaul of the nation's financial services industry.

“In order to better understand financial services industry e-mail spamming practices, we request that the commission initiate an immediate investigation into securities industry use of unsolicited spam e-mails,” the House members wrote.

The letter also questioned what the representatives called the extensive use of spam by broker-dealers, investment advisers, investment companies and their representatives.

The SEC would not comment on the letter. It is not known whether Unger will address the issue.

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