Defining Spam

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted September 01, 2001
by Robert J Wagman

IT'S AN AGE-OLD question: what is spam? Judging from recent attempts to draft federal anti-spam legislation, it appears Americans have radically different concepts of what constitutes spam.

The anti-spam bill that has received the most attention is H.R. 718, the "Unsolicited Commercial Electronic Mail Act of 2001," sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. In May, the bill emerged from a contentious mark-up in the House Judiciary Committee in a version significantly watered down from the one previously approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

As originally drafted, H.R. 718 prohibited e-mailers from sending subsequent messages after recipients asked them to stop, and enabled individuals to sue e-mail senders if subsequent e-mails are sent after such requests. It also made any such subsequent e-mails illegal and subject to a fine of up to $500 per e-mail.

The banking, insurance, and financial services industries, along with a number of other major lobbying groups, opposed the original bill. Lobbyists claimed the bill defined spam too broadly, and would expose businesses to penalties for legitimate e-mail communications with customers and potential customers.

The changes approved by the Judiciary Committee limit the bill's focus to regulating fraudulent e-mail, rather than all spam. The bill no longer prohibits e-mailers from sending messages to a recipient after that recipient has asked the sender to stop, and the provision enabling individuals to sue spammers has also been removed. It does prohibit the intentional transmission of 10 or more unsolicited messages containing intentionally misleading or incorrect information, such as the disguised identity of senders.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the committee's new version "correctly focuses this legislation on those who send fraudulent e-mail or pornography using technical fraud to conceal the sender's identity." John Savercool, vice president for federal affairs with the American Insurance Association, also applauded the Judiciary Committee's version. "The committee's targeted approach," Savercool said, "preserves the legitimate online communications critical to the growth of e-commerce."

Several anti-spam groups and legislators, however, believe that the changes unfairly favor business interests. The Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (CAUCE), for example, pulled its support of the new version because it is "tilted against consumers."

The bill's original sponsor was also less than enamored with the committee's changes and criticized the new version's narrow focus. Rep. Wilson stated that she has no intention of abandoning her legislation as originally drafted. "I am confident," Wilson said, "that meaningful anti-spam legislation will ultimately be passed into law."

At press time, both versions were being sent to the House Rules Committee, which will most likely meld the two versions of the bill, and then send them to the House floor. Then the whole matter moves on to the Senate, whose new Democratic majority has not yet taken a position on the subject.

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