FTC spam forum: Variety of solutions advanced

IDG News Service |  Business

A group of e-mail experts invited by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission advanced a number of ways to deal with unsolicited commercial e-mail, including better technology, an overhaul of the way the Internet works and new laws, but they couldn't agree on which approach would be best.

Panelists at the first day of a three-day spam conference starting Wednesday in Washington, D.C., couldn't even agree on the definition of spam, with some antispam activists and companies saying spam is all unsolicited bulk e-mail, and some e-mail marketers saying spam should be defined more narrowly, as unsolicited commercial e-mail that includes false subject lines or misleading e-mail headers.

"There wouldn't be any solicited commercial e-mail if there wasn't some way to approach these people," protested Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association, when other panelists suggested that spam was any unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Wientzen's comment prompted an outbreak of murmurings from other panelists and audience members, but Laura Atkins, president of the antispam SpamCon Foundation, admitted that banning all unsolicited bulk e-mail may not be in line with the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment right to free speech. "'Unsolicited and bulk' may not be the best definition for a law," she said.

The FTC spam hearing comes after a flurry of activity surrounding spam, from organizations and companies announcing spam research efforts, to the introduction of two bills in the U.S. Congress aimed at curbing the amount of spam. Estimates at the FTC hearing ranged from 40 percent to 75 percent of all e-mail traffic as being spam, and the FTC released a study Tuesday saying two thirds of all spam contains false information.

Clifton Royston, a systems architect for LavaNet Inc., said the small Hawaiian Internet service provider with about 12,000 customers paid close to US$200,000 last year to fight spam. "That's reflected in everyone's Internet bill," Royston said. "A large part of what you're paying for Internet service is because of spam."

On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he planned to introduce a series of antispam bills, including a federal no-spam registry modeled after do-not-call telemarketing registries, criminal and civil penalties for spammers who don't comply, and new antifraud measures. Schumer's legislation, like a bill offered by Representative Zoe Lofgren, would require commercial e-mail to be labeled as advertising, and he rejected criticisms that a no-spam registry would hamper free speech, saying that commercial speech isn't as protected as political speech under the First Amendment.

"I am saying today that enough is enough," Schumer told the spam conference audience. "It's time to take back the Internet from spammers."

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