Congress tries to 'can spam' - again

A five-month-old law hasn't stemmed the tide of unwanted e-mail ads. Some lawmakers call for better enforcement.

Ever wonder why, despite a new federal antispam law, you're still getting e-mail from African widows eager to download $25 million into your bank account - for a small fee?

So is Congress. That's why lawmakers are revisiting the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act, only five months after it took effect.

There are signs that the new law is not stemming the flood of unwanted e-mail - and may even have increased it by preempting stricter state laws.

Spam - or unsolicited commercial e-mail - is the new weapon of choice for those engaged in fraud and deception, according to the Federal Trade Commission, and its volume is increasing at staggering rates. In 2001, spam accounted for 8 percent of all e-mail. Today, industry experts say it accounts for anywhere from 64 percent to 83 percent of all e-mail over the Internet - and is beginning to surge as text messages on cellphones and pagers.

"The volume of spam received by American consumers has risen unabatedly," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

But - and here's the rub - some people like spam, or at least disagree that all of it is bad. Last year the Direct Marketing Association reported $7.1 billion in annual sales from commercial e-mail, which supporters say is protected by the First Amendment. More than 6 million e-mail users say they bought something as a result of an unsolicited e-mail, one 2004 survey found.

Whether people respond to the e-mails or just delete them, there are costs: Spam opens households to the threat of computer viruses and worms, pornography, and credit-card or identity theft. It cost US businesses over $10 billion a year, by one estimate.

Experts call it an arms race between spammers and major Internet-service providers, such as America Online, which offer an improving range of programs that filter out spam. While the new law requires spammers to provide an opt-out for consumers, there's no evidence that these have any effect.

"The ingenuity of spammers appears to be bottomless," says James Guest, president of the Consumers Union.

At issue is whether Congress should ban unwanted commercial e-mail altogether, as the European Union did last October, or stiffen penalties for abusers. GOP lawmakers say they are not ready to rewrite the law, but will track whether enforcement is effective. The FBI has yet to begin a criminal prosecution.

Consumer groups want Congress to also provide a blanket "no spam" opt out, similar to the National Do Not Call List for telemarketing - one of the most popular FTC moves ever. The CAN-SPAM Act allows but does not mandate such a list. FTC Chairman Timothy Muris says it would be unenforceable.

Industry advocates say such a move will not deter abusive spammers, who aren't respecting opt-out now.

The FTC plans to report back to Congress on the viability of such a universal opt-out by June 16.

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