A Tale of Two Anti-Spam Bills

Two anti-spam bills converged in a California legislature this week and lawmakers took the one less favored by consumer groups.

And that may make all the difference.

Separate proposals by Calif. Sen. Debra Bowen, (D-Redondo Beach) and Sen. Kevin Murray, (D-Culver City) aim to prohibit the existence of unsolicited email advertisements to your inbox for things like “Herbal Viagra,” or “Reducing Debt.”

But whereas Bowen’s bill failed Tuesday on a 5-2 vote, Murray’s bill was approved Wednesday 13-0 by the Assembly Business and Professions Committee.

Consumer groups say Bowen’s bill was stronger because it would have created an “opt-in” option for consumers, which means that no one can send them email unless they have specifically given permission. The bill would have also allowed recipients of unwanted email come-ons to received $500 per message. E-mail marketers found in violation under the law would also be required to contribute $250 per violation to California’s High Technology Theft Apprehension and Prosecution Program Trust Fund.

And while Murray’s bill is supported by the likes of Yahoo , Microsoft , AOL and the American Electronics Association, he refutes claims that he was influenced by industry interests.

“This is a bill I introduced without any conversations with any of them and in the course of pursuing the bill we took some amendments that made them not oppose the bill,” Murray told the Associated Press. “All these accusations are just sour grapes.”

The final version of Murray’s bill lets consumers, Internet service providers or the state Attorney General to take action to recover actual damages. The original Murray bill allowed for actual and “liquidated” damages, or non-monetary value losses.

Murray said the Assembly committee that passed Murray’s bill said would only take one provision but not both. Many similar amendments were taken in the Bowen bill as well.

“Limiting the amount of money people can collect from spammers to ‘actual damages’ basically means no one will ever collect a dime from a spammer because the average person isn’t going to take the time to figure out how much the spam forced down the throat of their computer costs them to deal with,” Bowen said in a statement. The state senator said she would seek a second vote.

Murray says his bill does have real teeth for businesses.

“They bear the burden of much of the spam because it ends up on their servers,” he said. His bill now goes to

California’s current anti-spam legislation, requires commercial emailers to include an unsubscribe mechanism and “ADV” for advertising or “ADV:ADLT” for adult content in the subject line.

Breaking Point
The anti-spam battle comes as consumers have reached a breaking point when it comes to their inboxes.

Even Microsoft chief architect Bill Gates bashed spam saying that “must be stopped.”

In January, a Harris Interactive poll found nearly three quarters of respondents thought spam should be illegal. California is one of 29 states in the country that has at least initiated some kind of anti-spam legislation, according to SpamLaws.com.

E-mail marketers have decried these state efforts, fearing the provisions in the state bills are unworkable and will unfairly paint legitimate email marketers with the same brush used for spammers.

The spam issue was the major factor leading to the creation of a coalition of email service providers under the auspices of the National Advertising Initiative (NAI). The coalition joined other email industry groups formed to address issues affecting email marketers.

Federal legilators are trying to help. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation billed as “The Can Spam Act,” that could cost spammers who use false headers or misleading subject lines up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $1 million.

But consumer groups are now saying that a “Do Not Spam“in initiative would serve a similar purpose to the national “Do Not Call” list that bans unsolicited telemarketer calls.

A plan that the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) says may not work, calling it “sheer folly.”

Companies who heavily use telemarketing say they are planning to counterattack consumers with a barrage of spam and junk mail in October, when the new do-not-call registry goes into effect.

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