New Bill Would Expose Spammers to RICO Act

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D.-Fla.) is the latest lawmaker to file anti-spam legislation, introducing a bill Tuesday that would use the civil Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to crack down on what Nelson calls the worst of email Internet solicitations — spam sent by people seeking money illegally or engaged in other illegal acts.

The RICO Act makes it illegal to acquire or maintain a business through a pattern of racketeering activity and allows authorities seize the assets of such an operation. Nelson’s bill calls for fines and possible jail terms of up to five years.

The legislation would outlaw transmitting high-volume unsolicited email from both interstate and foreign sources if they contain false, misleading or deceptive routing information, or forged email addresses. It would also require anyone sending unsolicited bulk electronic mail directly, or through an intermediary, to provide each recipient with a valid opt-out process for declining any or all such marketing or informational offers.

Nelson said he would seek to add his bill to the list of activities prohibited under RICO, which also gives victims grounds for recovery in civil court.

“Using the RICO law will let us hit the bad guys where it really hurts — in the pocket,” Nelson, a member of the Senate committee that regulates electronic commerce, said. “And the more firepower we give victims and prosecutors, the better.”

Nelson is also a co-sponsor of a bill by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that prevents bulk email senders from masking their identity. In addition, he hopes to join forces with U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D.-Calif.), who has offered a House bill to allow the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pay a bounty to people who find spammers who don’t label unsolicited commercial email as advertising.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is also promising to introduce legislation to create a national “do-not-spam” registry under the FTC’s auspices and would also force Internet advertisers to put an ADV tag in the subject line of any unsolicited piece of email. Burns and Wyden’s bill contains no subject line labeling requirement.

In addition, Reps. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R.-La.) and F. James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) are preparing to introduce junk email legislation that would require emailers to provide accurate electronic and physical addresses, prohibit harvesting of email addresses and allow consumers to opt-out of email offerings.

However, the legislation, which may be introduced as early as this week, would supercede tougher state anti-spam state laws, bar consumers from suing mass emailers and allow companies to send email to anyone who has done business with the companies within the previous three years.

“Most of this stuff is a nuisance, an invasion of privacy, and interferes with legitimate Internet commerce,” Nelson said, adding his own staff complains of routinely getting unwanted spam at home for pornographic videos, casino gambling, miraculous cures and get-out-debt schemes.

When Nelson served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the early 1980’s, he helped enact a national law against computer-assisted crimes. While in the Florida Legislature, he sponsored the state’s first law to fight racketeering crimes.

Nelson said his interest in curbing spam also is spurred by an international anti-spam organization saying last week that Florida now is home to an “overwhelmingly large amount” of the worst 180 spammers. The organization, called The Spamhaus Project, describes spammers as those who have been blocked at least three times from Internet service providers for sending unsolicited bulk email.

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