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House Committee Approves Watered-Down Spam Bill

The House Judiciary Committee has scaled back legislation that sought to curb spam, eliminating provisions that would have allowed consumers to sue companies that ignored their requests to be removed from mailing lists.

The committee passed the legislation Wednesday by a voice vote. It added a provision that would require pornographic e-mail to be clearly labeled as such, allowing consumers to delete the mail immediately without opening it.

The original legislation — H.R. 718, the Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2001 — passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March. Reps. Heather Wilson, R-NM, and Gene Green, D-TX, introduced the legislation last year in the 106th Congress.

“Through this narrower focus, I believe the legislation addresses fraudulent e-mail without drifting into the first major federal regulation of online commerce,” committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-WI, said. “Congress should be cautious when considering new regulation of e-commerce.”

As it stands now, H.R. 718 is similar to H.R. 1017, the Anti-Spamming Act of 2001, introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA. The two bills now move to the House Rules Committee, which will try to reconcile the two versions.

There has been a chorus of opposition to the proposed anti-spam legislation. Business leaders targeted H.R. 718 earlier this month in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

The legislation still requires 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.

H.R. 718 originally allowed individuals to sue spammers to block unsolicited e-mail, but that provision has been excised from this version of the bill. Committee members said they took out the provision to prevent frivolous lawsuits. They also said that as originally written, the legislation gave too much power to Internet service providers and could have made it difficult for legitimate marketers to communicate with their customers.

The scaled-back version of H.R. 718 is a victory for spammers, said Ray Everett-Church, a privacy advocate and counsel for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, an anti-spam advocacy group.

“This bill is no threat to spammers whatsoever,” Everett-Church said.

He also said that adding a provision to label pornographic e-mail may be unconstitutional.

“What they added, however, was a provision that suffers additional constitutional issues,” he said, adding that mandatory labeling of certain types of spam may be contrary to constitutional prohibitions.

“Constitutionally dubious labels [do] nothing to alleviate the costs borne by consumers and businesses who get spammed,” Everett-Church said. “So in this respect, the Judiciary Committee blew it.”

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