Spam could ruin e-mail
WASHINGTON: Spam must be stopped, according to lawmakers and Internet experts, but few agreed how to curb the unwanted junk e-mail they say threatens to overwhelm the Internet’s most popular application.
On the first day of the Federal Trade Commission’s “spam summit,” participants on Wednesday could not even agree on what type of online marketing was unacceptable enough to earn the pejorative tag. Marketers said that deceptive messages with misleading subject lines like “Re: your account” were to blame, squeezing out more reputable operators who only send messages to consumers who want to hear from them.
Internet providers and consumer advocates said it was the sheer number of messages, not their content, that posed the biggest threat. “The deception does not mitigate the problem of bulk,” said Laura Atkins, president of the SpamCon foundation, an anti-spam group.
Unsolicited commercial pitches have been a feature of the Internet landscape since 1978, when a Digital Equipment Corp. salesman sent a message touting a new computer to every West Coast user of the Arpanet, as it was then known.
But spam has become a major problem as the number of unwanted commercial messages has skyrocketed in the last two years. Filtering company Postini Inc. said 75 percent of the mail it handles is now spam, up from 5 percent in 1999. Internet provider America Online said it now blocks over 2 billion spam messages each day, roughly 67 for each e-mail account. “Spam is threatening to destroy the benefits of e-mail,” FTC Chairman Timothy Muris said in opening remarks.
The forum, which brought together marketers, Internet providers, anti-spam advocates and Washington policymakers, gave lawmakers a chance to tout their various anti-spam proposals.
California Rep. Zoe Lofgren said her bill would allow Internet users to collect a reward if they helped track down spammers, while New York Sen. Charles Schumer proposed setting up a “do not spam” list of people who did not want to receive commercial pitches.
Sens Conrad Burns and Ron Wyden said their bill, which outlaws the use of false return addresses, would help track down spammers because it would override the 27 state spam laws already in place. Without a single national law, “spammers will play one state off another,” said Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. But the Burns-Wyden bill, which so far has won the most support from industry and on Capitol Hill, came in for criticism from providers who said it should include criminal penalties and not override stronger state laws.
All of the proposed bills would prove toothless because they would not allow consumers to sue directly, said Washington State Attorney General Christine Gregoire.
E-mail marketer Bill Waggoner, sporting sunglasses and a ponytail, said that although he did not send messages to customers who did not want them, spam was unavoidable in such an open, global system. “If you get your e-mail added to the Internet, somebody’s going to contact you,” Waggoner said. “It’s a public deal all over the world.” —Reuters