Spam fighters need better tech

National Conference of State Legislatures summary of state anti-spam legislation

A new approach to fighting spam includes the use of better technology to tackle the problem, according to a panel of government officials.

Unsolicited commercial or bulk e-mail advertising, commonly known as spam, is annoying and offensive, wastes network resources and costs organizations money in lost productivity. It spreads viruses and perpetrates frauds and scams, several officials said during a spam discussion Wednesday at this year's National Conference of State Legislatures in San Francisco.

Eileen Harrington, who leads the Federal Trade Commission's Marketing Practices program, said it's "highly likely" that some federal legislation regarding spam will be enacted before the year's end. But that won't solve the problem, officials said.

"We don't believe a federal law, even the most enlightened, brilliant piece of federal legislation, is going to solve the spam problem," Harrington said, adding that an approach that combines many methods and heavily emphasizes better technology can reduce the volume of spam.

Because spammers are becoming good at evading filters, a more comprehensive solution is needed, said Marketing Practices counsel for Microsoft Corp.

Market-driven solutions, such as the use of sophisticated filters, rules-based systems and the creation of safe lists of legitimate senders can work, Ashworth said. But, he added, governments have to differentiate between legitimate commercial e-mail and spam, which espouses fraudulent or misleading claims, and impose stronger and more "meaningful" criminal and civil penalties on the latter.

Spam costs U.S. corporations $8.9 billion annually, said California state Sen. Debra Bowen. She cited recent private sector research that concluded spam now represents more than 50 percent of all e-mail sent. And, by 2007, the average American will get 3,900 pieces of spam per year, she said.

Internet access might be cheaper if service providers didn't have to devote so many resources to fighting unwanted e-mail, Minnesota state Sen. Steve Kelley said. "There is an economic cost here that I suppose is arguably intangible, but it is a theft that's going on," he said.

California requires mass e-mailers to give users the option to be excluded from their lists. Other state laws across the country prohibit misrepresenting the routing information on messages, using third party Internet addresses without permission, and including misleading information on a message's subject line. Some require a toll-free number or valid e-mail address in a commercial e-mail so recipients can opt out of receiving future messages, and other laws require labeling an e-mail's subject line to indicate whether it contains an advertisement or materials that can only be viewed, bought or owned by adults.

But 70 percent of Web sites don't have valid remove functions available, Bowen said. She wants to turn the opt-out law into an opt-in law — modeled after the federal bill — under which mass e-mail recipients would have to specifically ask to be sent e-mail from a commercial entity. The proposed state bill would impose financial penalties for violations and allow individuals to sue spammers. Currently, only city attorneys and the state attorney general can sue companies that send such e-mail.

Bowen said there is a question whether unsolicited commercial e-mail can be considered legitimate e-mail, but companies like AmericaOnline Inc. and Microsoft believe "only scammers are spammers."

"Stay tuned. We're going to have a big battle over spam, and it's going to be very interesting," she said.

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