Senate Passes Anti-Spam Bill; Calls for Do-Not-Spam List

The Senate unanimously passed anti-spam legislation yesterday that carries stiff penalties for spammers and calls for the creation of a do-not-spam registry.

Among the last-minute amendments to the anti-spam bill was a provision to set up a federal do-not-spam registry similar to the national no-call list. The amendment, pushed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, requires the Federal Trade Commission to submit a plan for creating a registry in six months and implement it within nine months.

The legislation carries criminal penalties for sending spam with false header information or using other means to disguise the sender’s identity. Violators could face up to three years in prison.

The bill also bans harvesting of e-mail addresses from Web sites. It includes provisions for Internet service providers to take spammers to court and gives state attorneys general the power to file lawsuits.

E-mail marketers would face new requirements, such as including in their e-mail a physical address, an honest subject line and working opt-out mechanism. All commercial e-mail must make clear it is advertising.

Though passage of the bill is a big step toward having a federal anti-spam law, it still faces hurdles. The House of Representatives would need to pass similar legislation, with differences between the two bills ironed out in conference. The bill then would go to President Bush for his signature or veto.

The genesis of the anti-spam bill was a measure introduced in April by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-OR, and Conrad Burns, R-MT. That measure had the support of a number of powerful players, including AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft. It called only for the FTC to study the creation of a do-not-spam registry.

Schumer introduced an anti-spam measure in April that would have set up a national do-not-spam registry. Though it gained the support of anti-spam and consumer-advocacy groups, the measure fell behind the Burns-Wyden bill on the legislative docket. The Burns-Wyden bill was voted out of the Senate Commerce Committee in June, making it a frontrunner among the five anti-spam measures introduced in the Senate.

The bill took on a flurry of amendments as it neared a vote, including the call for a do-not-spam registry, which Schumer brokered with members of the Commerce Committee.

Detractors, including some FTC members, say a do-not-spam list almost certainly would prove ineffective because spammers most likely would ignore it or even hack the directory for fresh e-mail addresses.

“The do-not-e-mail [provision] is trouble for legitimate marketers, and it won't give consumers any benefit,” said Louis Mastria, a Direct Marketing Association spokesman. “The only person who wins is the spammer.”

Timothy Muris, the FTC's chairman, which would be in charge of operating a do-not-spam list under the legislation, publicly doubted its usefulness.

Speaking at a conference this summer, Muris said a do-not-spam list was an “intriguing idea.” However, he added, “If it were established, my advice to consumers would be: Don't waste the time and effort to sign up.”

In a statement, Schumer has brushed off such reticence, noting that the FTC has admitted that creating a registry is “technologically feasible.” He trumpeted survey data showing 75 percent of consumers want the do-not-spam list.

Mastria said the DMA supported the anti-spam bill, warts and all.

“We still support the bill, having at the end of the day a single national standard,” he said. “We're willing to take a bitter pill here.”

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