Consumer Groups Rally to Decry Spam Before Senate Meeting

Several consumer groups who have written Congress to ask the body to quash spam will air an audio conference before the Senate meets Thursday to discuss bills addressing the unsolicited email dilemma.

A letter written by JunkBusters.com President Chief Executive Officer Jason Catlett outlined the concerns of the groups and provided some interesting scenarios of how they would like to see bills currently before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Communications Subcommittee, dubbed S. 630 and H.R. 718, altered to create an opt-in policy and a private right of action.

The bills were introduced in late March by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Or.). S.630 is also known as “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing,” or CAN-SPAM; it aims to discourage bothersome email by giving the FTC the power to slap civil fines on companies that don’t respond to “unsubscribe” requests.

Accordingly, the legislation requires valid return email addresses for every piece of email marketing, so that recipients can opt-out. The bill also gives ISPs some legal recourse against spammers, and grants state attorney generals the ability to sue email marketers on behalf of citizens for violating an opt-out policy.

But Junkbusters’ Catlett, in a detailed hypothetical situation, outlined flaws in S.630:

“When you receive a letter from a constituent angered by the solicitation sent to her teenage son to become a pornographer from the comfort of his own bedroom, how will you answer her question “Is this junk email really obeying your law?” The answer will depend on the kind of bill you pass. As S.630 stands, you would have to answer something like this: “Yes. Every spammer can send you at least one spam, and it’s up to you to tell each separate spammer to stop. If they don’t, you can’t do anything about it yourself, you have to hope that a government agency [or your ISP] will do something for you.”

“Is that answer likely to please your constituents?” Catlett goes on to ask. “A better answer, which you could give if you pass an amended or different bill, would be “The spammer is lying. My bill made spamming illegal, and it gives you the right to sue the spammer if they break the law.”

S.630 may be the key bill on tap, but it isn’t the only one. Several members of both houses of Congress are sponsoring similar bills. Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others are behind H.R. 1017, “The Anti-Spamming Act of 2001,” while Reps. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and Gene Greene (D-TX) are supporting a similar bill, H.R. 718.

Indeed, privacy advocates long have been clamoring that giving users notice of their inclusion in an email marketing list, as well as the choice to “opt-out” of email marketing messages, is just not enough.

One privacy advocate suggested that by sanctioning “opt-out” — which allows companies to send commercial email without prior permission from recipients — Congress could be opening the doors to ever-growing amounts of unwanted email.

“Given that it is opt-out, the law is simply going to encourage more spam,” said Privacy Foundation Chief Technology Officer Richard Smith. “Most legit companies don’t spam today because there is social pressure against it. These companies will start spamming because of the one-bite-of-the-apple rule.”

24/7 Media CEO David Moore is slated to go before the Senate subcommittee on Thursday, and not surprisingly, he’s expected to promote industry-friendly privacy policies in support of S.360.

“I’m just going to be talking to them, so we can work this thing out,” Moore told internetnews.com Wednesday evening at a panel discussion hosted by the Center for Communication in New York. “We all have an interest in … working with Congress to find a sensible solution.”

Moore told the audience that he would be discussing the email applications of the four-part privacy “best practices” supported by several industry-supported groups (like the National Advertising Initiative) and the Federal Trade Commission — notice, choice, security and access.

“We’re all over this thing,” he said during the panel. “We take it very seriously.”

Naturally, 24/7 Media — which makes a fair share of its revenue from email marketing services — is inclined to support a bill that promotes “opt-out,” than “opt-in.”

But Moore maintains it’s all about reaching a mutually beneficial solution.

“24/7 Media’s objective in working with Congress is simple — to ensure that any legislation passed by the Congress allows for the continued viability of legitimate interactive marketers while at the same time providing a mechanism to provide consumers with notice and choice over the use of their personal information,” Moore said.

“The Burns-Wyden bill represents a measured, bi-partisan legislative solution to email marketing practices and is a good example of how Congress can play a constructive and defining role in ensuring both the continued growth of the Internet and the privacy of Internet users.”

Regardless of the bill’s eventual outcome, Moore said his company will continue talking to Congress about spam legislation “to ensure that any legislation passed by Congress reflects a sensible balance between enabling the continued growth of the Internet and empowering consumers with choice.”

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