House Passes Federal Anti-Spam Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives approved an anti-spam bill early Saturday morning that mandates commercial emailers provide consumers with an opt-out mechanism. The bill, which pre-empts 37 existing state anti-spam bills, calls for a national Do-Not-Spam registry, and contains provisions to limit wireless unsolicited commercial email.

The new legislation would go into effect when signed by the President. The White House has been supportive of anti-spam legislation. “This bill can and should go to President Bush this year,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R.-LA) said. “For the first time during the Internet era, American consumers will have the ability to say no to spam.”

The bill gained momentum Friday morning after House and Senate negotiators agreed on a compromise between competing House versions and the Can Spam Act passed last month by the Senate. Because of the negotiated nature of the bill, passage is expected in the Senate Friday night or Saturday.

Tauzin said the bill makes it a criminal offense, subject to a maximum five-year prison sentence, to send fraudulent email using such standard spam tactics as false headers and misleading subject lines. The bill calls for statutory damages of $2 million for violations, tripled to $6 million for intentional violations and unlimited damages for fraud and abuse.

Tauzin also said the legislation gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the authority to establish a Do-Not-Spam registry based on the FTC’s popular Do-Not-Call database for unwanted and unsolicited telemarketing telephone calls.

Tauzin’s contention that federal legislation will stop spam will likely elicit laughter among close followers of the wide-ranging battle against the spam scourge. Existing laws already preclude the frauds and scams that characterize so much spam email, but the Federal Trade Commission, charged with enforcing such laws, has trouble even figuring out the perpetrators’ identities. What federal legislation will do is set a single standard legitimate business users of email can follow in the U.S.

“We should not expect this bill to totally solve the problem of unwanted spam,” John Dingel (D.-MI) said. “We have to revisit it in the future. It has the regrettable provision that pre-empts stronger state laws. Still, it is a start.”

Pre-empting state laws comes as a relief to email marketers and publishers who especially fear the recently passed California spam law that effectively bans ad-supported email newsletters, among other tight restrictions.

Tauzin added, “Although the Internet has given us abilities beyond our wildest dreams, it has also produced endless headaches with all of the crippling congestion spam causes to computers every day throughout this country. Today’s agreement could end all of that nonsense and bring peace of mind back to everyone who sends and receives email.”

AOL released a statement supporting the bill. AOL “is pleased that it will soon be sent to the President. This law will be a significant weapon for the online industry in the ongoing fight to can the spam and thwart the spam kingpins. This is a critical new law that will help us turn the tide against spam in the online medium for good.”

Congress’ other major tech legislation, the permanent or temporary extension of a ban on Internet access taxes, remains in doubt with a cadre of senators blocking the passage of a House bill that permanently bars taxes on Internet connections.

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