California takes aim at junk e-mail as governor signs two bills

Tuesday, September 29, 1998

Gov. Pete Wilson signed two bills this weekend that could make California a “spam-free zone” when they take effect Jan. 1, 1999. The new laws are designed to control unsolicited commercial e-mail, also known as junk e-mail or spam.

Assembly Bill 1629, sponsored by Assemblyman Gary Miller, provides that “no registered user” or “individual, corporation or other entity” shall use an Internet service provider's electronic mail services in violation of the ISP's policy regarding junk e-mail.

Under this new law, California-based ISP's can sue spamming companies for up to $25,000 a day at a rate of $50 per junk e-mail.

Assembly Bill 1676, sponsored by Assemblywoman Debra Bowen, amends the state law regulating unsolicited ads by fax to include “unsolicited advertising by electronic mail.” This measure requires senders of commercial e-mail to provide a “valid return address,” to desist from transmitting further e-mails upon request and to identify unsolicited advertisements in the subject line with the letters “ADV” or “ADV:ADLT” for adult-oriented materials.

Both legislators applauded the governor's decision to sign their bills. “This is a great day for Internet users in California,” Miller said. “We have put spammers on notice that after Jan. 1, 1999, California will be a spam-free zone.”

Bowen said: “Spam has become the junk fax of the computer age, but contrary to the wisdom of Monty Python, not all kinds of spam go [well] with eggs. Advertisers don't have the right to tie up your phone and burn through your fax paper by sending unsolicited faxes, and they shouldn't have the right to tie up computer systems and slow down business operations by spamming people to death.”

The Coalition Against Unsolicited E-Mail, a leading national anti-spam group, praised both the governor and the Legislature.

John Mozena, co-founder and vice president of CAUCE, said: “We are very happy with the governor's action. This is a good example of legislators listening to their constituents and industry experts, and then coming up with an appropriate response.”

Mozena acknowledged that the law is only a partial solution to the problem of junk e-mail, noting that “any state law is hamstrung by the fact that the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. However, there are a lot of Internet hosts in California; this legislation is a significant chunk of the pie.”

Miller agreed: “We passed a sound law to protect California, but there is still work to be done at the national level. Spam is not just hurting Californians; it is hurting the whole Internet system. We need to take the next step and create a national solution.”

Mozena said the efforts in California demonstrate that the government is taking seriously the problems caused by spam. “A year ago, there were maybe two or three legislators nationwide who understood what spam was and why it was a problem. Now, we have decent state laws in California and Washington, as well as a Congress that is addressing the issue even in the midst of political upheaval. This is a lot of progress in a short period of time.”

However, at least one First Amendment expert said efforts to solve problems caused by junk e-mail may be moving too quickly.

Robert O'Neil, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, said regulating spam is a “much more complex issue” than many government officials and others realize. “When restrictions on door-to-door solicitation and leafleting in malls were proposed, the approach taken was much more deliberate,” O'Neil said. He cautioned that such laws could unduly burden commercial-speech rights. O'Neil added that given the “instantaneous and global communication ability of e-mail and the Internet … any solution, if needed, should be uniform and federally imposed.”