Tired of e-mail about losing weight? Help may be on the way

Congress passes 'antispam' bill with five-year prison terms for violaters. But don't expect junk messages to end just yet.

For Jim Butler, it's the same routine every day. Sit down, log on, and wade through hundreds of junk e-mails, looking for the one he actually needs to do business.

It's more than just annoying. Today, 247 messages sit in his bulk e-mail folder. When he finally finds the one he is looking for, he dumps the rest. Just another day for one of the millions who fight America's spam wars.

"I get a ton of it, pitching everything from diet pills to debt consolidation to sex in every way, shape, and form," says Mr. Butler, a criminal defense attorney in Houston. "And it seems like I'm getting more every day. Somebody should do something."

Well, Butler's holiday wish may be coming true. While most people were preparing turkey and the news media were fixated on Congress's passage of Medicare reform, lawmakers quietly did something else: pass the first-ever federal protections against unwanted commercial e-mails.

The bill, approved by the Senate Tuesday, outlaws some of the most offensive techniques used by spammers and includes penalties of up to five years in prison. The House passed a similar bill last week, and final approval of a House-Senate reconciliation is two weeks away.

A national do-not-spam list?

Building on the popularity of the national "do-not-call" registry for telephone marketers, the antispam bill encourages the Federal Trade Commission to create a do-not-spam list of e-mail addresses.

The FTC has criticized the idea, but some in Congress, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, want to ensure the FTC sets up such a list by threatening the agency's funding.

The bill is being hailed by e-mail users as a major step towards cleaning out their inboxes. But antispam organizations say it is about as useless as the mounds of messages for Viagra and vitamins.

"It fails what we think is the basic test of any antispam legislation: It doesn't tell anybody not to spam," says John Mozena, cofounder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. "Instead, it regulates spam. It tells [spammers] to be honest about who they are and to stop sending spam to people if they're asked [not to]. But it doesn't make the practice illegal."

On top of that, it supplants even tougher anti-spam laws already passed in some states, with the most stringent one, in California, set to take effect Jan. 1. Now, 21 states have some kind of law that regulates unsolicited e-mail.

The costs associated with junk e-mail are enormous. Studies show that about half of all the e-mail on the Internet today is spam, and that it is costing users about $10 billion a year to deal with it. That includes the hours lost in wading through it, hardware costs in blocking it, and salaries of network administrators fighting it.

"Even though most companies filter spam at the server [computer], it still comes into the bandwidth. And that eats up the resources of the company," says Michael Bonine, a former systems administrator with StorNet, a Houston data storage company. He says each day his company, with 220 employees, would receive about 1,400 business-related e-mails and 7,800 spam e-mails.

"It was a losing battle," says Mr. Bonine.

To address the problem, the federal bill requires marketers sending unsolicited e-mail to identify themselves as such and to include valid contact information. It says that if a person asks to be taken off their mailing list, they must respond. And it prohibits them from disguising their identity by using a false return address.

Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates called the legislation "a milestone in the battle against spam and a major step towards preserving e-mail as a powerful communication tool."

Mr. Mozena, however, says the change may be qualitative more than quantitative. "It might clear out some of the real bottom feeders, like the pornographers, herbal supplement marketers, and relatives of dead Nigerian dictators. But there are no roadblocks to keep Fortune 500 companies from sending unsolicited e-mails."

A better 'opt-in' approach?

Antispam groups like Mozena's contend that Congress is pushing the federal bill through before the New Year because it wants to keep California's law from taking effect. That law does make spam illegal and severely limits marketers by asking recipients to opt in - instead of out - to receiving their pitches, a first in the US.

In Europe, most countries have opt-in antispam laws. But they are essentially useless, because almost 60 percent of the world's spam comes from the US.

"The problem is just going to get passed around overseas unless the whole world comes together to find a solution," says Brian dos Santos, a computer expert at the University of Louisville. "It costs almost nothing to send out this stuff. So even if only one person in a million responds, there is some economic benefit to doing it."

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