[ OUR OPINION ]
Strong laws needed
to slice into spam
UNWANTED e-mail, called spam, has grown from annoyance to costly intrusion with estimates of more than 1 billion unsolicited messages packing Internet accounts every day. Congress is preparing varied legislation to deal with the problem and the sooner it cans the spam the better.
Unsolicited and fraudulent e-mail is crushing the Internet, providers, businesses and individuals.
Anyone who has an e-mail account is well aware of the inconvenience spam presents with come-ons for everything from penile implants and pornography to credit cards and septic tanks. At a three-day forum conducted earlier this week by the Federal Trade Commission, a report revealed that for one account the FTC maintains, unwanted e-mail increased from 10,000 a day in 2001 to 130,000 a day this year. Most of the spam contained at least one form of deception.
The enormous amount of electronic junk burdens businesses to the tune of $10 billion a year, a good amount of that through a loss of thousands of work hours as employees wade through jammed in-boxes. The heavy volume adds to provider costs, which is passed on to subscribers, and clogs access to legitimate Web companies. In one instance, nearly 90 business sites were cut off the 'Net when they were misidentified as spammers.
Several measures are pending in Congress, but states with spam laws -- Hawaii isn't one of them -- are objecting to two of those because they would preempt their stronger protections. However, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, co-sponsor of one of the bills, contends that without nationwide regulation, enforcement would suffer.
Virginia recently toughened its law, making delivery of deceptive e-mails a criminal offense since spammers consider civil fines merely the cost of doing business. Now violators are subject to prison terms of up to five years and forfeiture of profits and assets. Because major providers like America Online are based in Virginia, prosecutors believe they can extend their reach beyond state lines. However, legal experts predict problems over jurisdiction will hamper enforcement. Moreover, the ease of setting up shop keeps spammers mobile; they can pack up and disappear in a matter of days, long gone before authorities track them down.
Spammers can easily elude filters, which yank e-mail with flagged terms like Viagra or pornographic phrases, by using deliberate misspellings or asterisks between the letters. The problem has spurred rival providers AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo to join forces to develop guidelines to fight spam. Legitimate e-mail market companies fear they will be caught in the spam net, but they also want to stem the flow because the junk harms them as well.
Proposals in Congress include requiring that unsolicited commercial messages have valid return addresses so recipients can remove themselves from "send" lists, banning market companies from using deceptive subject lines and requiring accurate reflection of contents, setting up "no-spam" registers so consumers can opt out and even offering bounties for anyone who can identify a fraudulent spammer.
Another problem: Federal law extends only to U.S. borders, and spam knows no boundaries with much of it coming from overseas. A global effort would be extremely difficult to arrange, but zapping spam must begin somewhere and it must start now.