Spam Fighters Invoke Racketeering Law
WASHINGTON -- Congress is getting the chance to get tough on spam with the introduction of legislation that would let federal authorities charge some spammers with racketeering crimes.
The bill proposed by Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) this week is the third piece of spam legislation introduced in Congress this year. Also in the hopper are a wireless spam bill introduced by Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) and a "Computer Owners' Bill of Rights" that includes some antispam wording, from Senator Mark Dayton (D-Minnesota).
Nelson's bill would allow criminal charges under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was originally used to prosecute organized crime.
RICO allows authorities to seize the assets of businesses engaged in racketeering, the practice of using an organization to obtain money illegally or to intimidate people. It also lets victims of racketeering file civil lawsuits against the perpetrators, and a Nelson representative says a primary goal of the bill is to allow spam victims to collect damages.
Neither of the two previous antispam bills allowed for civil lawsuits, although several attendees at a U.S. Federal Trade Commission spam forum earlier this month
"RICO lets you recover the assets from any ill-gotten gains," said Dan McLaughlin, a Nelson spokesperson.
Nelson said in a statement that his bill is designed to target the worst spam: e-mail messages sent by people seeking money illegally or engaged in other illegal acts.
"Using the RICO law will let us hit the bad guys where it really hurts--in the pocket," Nelson said in the statement. "And the more firepower we give victims and prosecutors, the better."
The racketeering charges would be applied to unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail that uses false routing information or forged return addresses, as well as spam sent to people who asked to opt out. Spammers who harvest e-mail addresses for the purpose of sending unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail also would be subject to RICO charges, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison, plus criminal fines and the possibility of civil lawsuits.
Nelson's working definition of "bulk" is 10,000 messages, McLaughlin said, so the bill wouldn't affect individual Internet users sending jokes to a dozen friends or legitimate marketers who have business relationships with their customers.
"If you send me something, you get one chance. If I say, 'take me off the list,' that's it," McLaughlin said. "If you send a million e-mails, it'd be our opinion that each one of those e-mails would be a separate act, and you'd have a million violations."
Asked if racketeering charges might be overkill for spam, McLaughlin disagreed. E-mail gives criminals trying to prey on consumers with illegal investment schemes and other activities a bullhorn they didn't have before, he said.
"By use of technology, [a criminal] is exponentially increasing the number of victims," McLaughlin said. "If anybody thinks we should not use the toughest legal means available, they should take another look at it."
Nelson plans to work with the authors of two other antispam bills introduced in Congress, McLaughlin said. In early April, Senators Conrad Burns (R-Montana), and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), introduced the
Later in the month, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California), introduced a bill that would allow Internet users to
Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), has promised to introduce antispam legislation that would include a national
One is pending from W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-Louisiana), a frequent source of tech legislation. A staffer said on Wednesday the congressman isn't yet prepared to comment on the bill. "He'll talk about it after it's introduced," the spokesperson said.
McLaughlin predicted a version of his boss's antispam bill would pass Congress this year. "Ever since George Washington learned to ride a horse, nothing has passed in its original form," he said.
Internet users are fed up with unsolicited commercial e-mail, McLaughlin added. "The issue has reached a critical mass," he said. "People can't deal with it any more."