Will Taxing E-Mail Stop Spam?
WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers, antispam activists, and even a self-professed spammer are mulling several methods for canning spam, from imposing a small charge for sending e-mail to an international spam treaty.
Congress should impose a small charge for each piece of e-mail sent, one senator told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee at a hearing Wednesday.
"I think it's worth looking at some very, very small charge for every e-mail sent, so small that it would not be onerous for an individual or business that has regular (e-mail) use, but it would be a deterrent for those who are sending millions and even billions of these e-mails," said Senator Mark Dayton (D-Minnesota).
In early March, Dayton introduced the "Computer Owners' Bill of Rights," which proposes creating a national antispam registry but does not include a charge for sending e-mail. But at the hearing, Dayton promoted an e-mail tax as well as a federal antispam SWAT team to combat growing amounts of unsolicited commercial e-mail in Internet users' in-boxes.
Dayton's ideas were several advanced at the hearing, where the consensus seemed that something should be done about spam before it
"What was a simple annoyance last year has become a major concern this year and could cripple one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century next year if nothing is done," said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who proposed an international spam treaty.
E-mail marketers trying to do the right thing by providing contact information and opt-out links are being driven underground by ISPs that kill their service, said Ronald Scelson, operator of Scelson Online Marketing.
Scelson's company has been forced to disguise the sender information of the 180 million pieces of e-mail it sends daily, Scelson said. One carrier shut him off after receiving 1200 complaints, he said. But with a 1 percent response rate on the unsolicited commercial e-mail it sends, far more people buy the products advertised than complain about the spam, he said.
"Why do more people buy than complain about it?" Scelson asked. "If [the mail is 100 percent legal, and [ISPs] get a single complaint, they will turn around and kill your circuit, so we go out of business or we're forced to forge the headers. The biggest complain is you can't find us. If you could, you're going to shut us down, so why should we let you find us?"
Some ISPs add to the amount spam costs U.S. busineses--estimated at $10 billion in 2003--by setting up spam filters that force bulk e-mailers to send one message at a time. The process eats additional bandwidth at both ends of the e-mail process.
Outlawing most commercial e-mail amounts to censorship, Scelson said, asking whether Congress will ban bulk postal mail as well.
"I'm told that there's a lot of cost factors in reading this e-mail," Scelson said. "When you read this e-mail, you go through and push 'delete.'" But with postal mail, he said, "you have to walk outside, take this junk mail out of the box, read this junk mail--have you thought about how much chemicals, pollution, and trees that are involved with this? And then you've got to throw it away."
He promised to work with Congress on any spam legislation, and threw his own spam prevention idea into the mix. Scelson advocates all e-mail applications include a "no bulk e-mail" box for customers to check, bouncing bulk e-mail back to the sender.
"It costs no money on AOL's end and no money on our end," he said. It "costs no money and gives the power back to the people. I agree that there needs to be a solution, but just don't take the freedom away from the individual."
Committee members Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, promoted their Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act. The measure,
During the hearing, Commissioner Orson Swindle of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission repeated criticisms of CAN-SPAM and other antispam legislation
Swindle advocates a technological solution that allows Internet users to block all e-mail except from people in their address books. "Give the consumer the power," he said. "Empower the consumer to say no to what's coming into his mailbox."
The problem with spam is that it's difficult to find the spammers, calling into question the effectiveness of most legislation, Swindle said. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida, proposes charging some spammers
"What we need are a couple of good hangings," Swindle said. "I have not seen one piece of legislation that I think would be adequate."
Swindle's comments prompted Wyden to question why the FTC supported an earlier version of the CAN-SPAM bill, which was passed by the committee last year but didn't go to a vote of the full Senate.
"When you have the real scofflaws, when you have the real bad actors, those are not people who are paying attention to what industry self-regulatory initiatives are all about," he said, countering Swindle's calls for the industry to police its own. "That's why we've got to move the government quickly."
Schumer urged an international spam treaty. He has also proposed a national
A national law is not enough, Schumer added. "The bottom line is that the second we tighten up enforcement here at home, rogue actors go overseas to continue their activities," he said. "If we're just focused on curbing spam here at home, we'll be unsuccessful."
Would an FTC-administered national do-not-spam list work? Swindle said it would not. "You're talking about an incredibly large database that would be difficult to secure," he said. "If I'm a spammer, I think that (list) is a target-rich environment."
Microsoft and Symantec
The wide range of proposals came from such witnesses as Congress members and ISPs, the Network Advertising Initiative and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. All agreed that something must be done to combat spam.
"We needed legislation last year, we needed it yesterday, we need it as soon as possible," said J. Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, a cooperative of Internet advertisers. "Once we have that, we need strong enforcement."