Spam Laws: Bark or Bite?

Illustration: Joe Zeff
If you're cheering about the recent progress toward antispam laws and a proposed national do-not-spam list, you should hold your applause: Neither is expected to vanquish spam, and they both might block e-mail you want to get.

California has adopted an antispam law, and Congress is still considering the federal CAN-SPAM Act (see highlights of each, "What the Antispam Laws Do"). The federal bill is a good first effort, says Jared Blank, a Jupiter Research analyst. But Blank believes the California law will hurt thousands of honest businesses, and that both efforts will ultimately fail to curb most spam--primarily because the slimiest spammers won't follow the law and will likely move offshore to try to stay beyond its reach.

In the meantime, legitimate businesses are nervously paring their marketing lists, afraid of being fined for communicating with customers.

Getting Tough

California's law, taking effect January 1, is the stricter of the two. Companies that send marketing information and sponsored newsletters by e-mail are concerned.

They warn of a cottage industry for "spambulance" chasers--lawyers who pursue well-heeled newsletter advertisers. (Editor's note: PC World produces a number of e-mail newsletters that are supported by advertising.)

Michael Mayor, the president of NetCreations, which builds double opt-in e-mail lists for businesses, says that he's dropping all California e-mail addresses from the database. New Yorka??based retailer Silberman's Army & Navy fears the law will prevent e-mail promotion of its Working Gear Web site. "There is a strong probability that someone on any list we acquire could be a lawsuit," says Dave Zabell, a consultant.

Microsoft, several ISPs, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation support the law. "The California law will for the first time give us some recourse to go after these guys," says Craig Newmark, founder of the popular Craigslist Web site.

The CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act has U.S. Senate approval and is now under consideration in the House, where it could pass by the time you read this.

"This legislation is an important step toward giving consumers more control," says Senate sponsor Ron Wyden (D-Oregon).

Diverse Support

Supporters include the Telecommunications Research and Action Center, an advocacy group, as well as the National Consumers League and Consumer Action.

"I believe the potential of this medium is at stake," says Sam Simon, who chairs the Telecommunications Research and Action Center. "[Spam] is out of control."

Businesses' key concern with the act's proposed national do-not-spam list is that spammers won't abide by the list anyway, while legitimate small companies will face a huge burden, says John Rizzi, CEO of E-Dialog, an e-marketing firm. "Spammers are not people who pay a lot of attention to legal rules," agrees J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"There is still no silver bullet for spam," says Louis Mastria, director of public and international affairs for the Direct Marketing Association, an industry group that includes both e-mail and traditional mail marketers.

For the foreseeable future, update your spam filters and keep hitting <Delete>.

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