Federal Antispam Law Nears

WASHINGTON -- A federal antispam measure may soon be law, allowing penalties of up to $6 million and five years in jail for senders of some spam.

The bill now needs only the president's signature to take effect. The House of Representatives has approved an amended version of a bill that the Senate approved in October.

The bill had been bouncing between the House and Senate as both houses of Congress made changes to it. The House, by unanimous consent, approved an amended version of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003. Its passage late Monday follows the Senate's approval of the latest version on November 25.

Senate sources say they expect the president will sign the bill into law by the end of the year.

Law's Highlights

Senators Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, cheered the House action as a bipartisan, bicameral effort and an important step toward stopping the "kingpin spammers and stemming the flow of garbage into America's in-boxes."

About 13 billion pieces of unsolicited commercial e-mail are sent each day, which represents about half of all e-mail sent, the senators noted in a press release.

Critics say CAN-SPAM will allow "legal" spam to continue because it requires that e-mail users opt out of receiving commercial e-mail, instead of requiring that spammers receive opt-in permission before sending e-mail. Some critics have also decried the bill authors' decision not to allow individual e-mail users to sue spammers.

This version also includes a provision requiring the Federal Trade Commission to report to Congress within six months with recommendations on setting up a national do-not-spam list. The service would be similar to the national do-not-call telemarketing list now in effect in the United States.

Bill Background

CAN-SPAM lets ISPs sue spammers and state attorneys general sue on behalf of users.

CAN-SPAM includes a criminal penalty of up to a year in jail for sending commercial e-mail with false or misleading header information. It imposes criminal penalties, ranging up to five years in prison, for some common spamming practices such as hacking into someone's computer to send spam, using open relays to send spam that's intended to deceive, and registering five or more e-mail accounts using false information and using those accounts to send bulk spam.

The federal measure will supersede state action, including a stricter law passed in California earlier this year.

The Congressional bill went through several versions. A pumped-up House version increased penalties from the original Senate version passed in October, with up to $250 per spam e-mail with a cap of $2 million that can be tripled to $6 million for aggravated violations. The first Senate version allowed fines of up to $100 per piece of spam sent with misleading header information, with a maximum fine of $3 million for aggravated cases.

The House bill also applies its requirements on all pieces of commercial e-mail, not just unsolicited commercial e-mail, as required in the Senate bill. Requirements on commercial e-mail include a valid reply-to address, a valid postal address, and accurate headers and subject lines.

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