House tries again to put a lid on spam

Tuesday, June 19, 2001

Pesky e-mails offering pictures of scantily clad women, sex aids and get-rich-quick schemes clog millions of in boxes every day, creating an almost universal annoyance for Web surfers.

David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition, recognizes these unsolicited commercial e-mails as a fact of the Internet age. But while he and other free-speech advocates welcome advice for how the individual surfer can curb such messages, they worry that government efforts tend to weigh in on the chilly side in terms of free speech.

“In the same way that government can’t require a bookstore to segregate certain books, we question whether they can essentially require a speaker to segregate or pejoratively label material the public deems offensive,” said Horowitz, whose group represents the Magazine Publishers of America and the American Booksellers Association.

But some worry that’s exactly what proposed legislation concerning unsolicited commercial e-mail, more popularly known as “spam,” would do.

H.R. 718, sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., would make it a federal crime to intentionally send 10 or more unsolicited commercial e-mail messages knowing that the information in the subject line “is materially false or misleading as to the identity of the person initiating the transmission.”

Recently, the House Judiciary Committee approved an amendment to H.R. 718 offered by Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa., that would require such e-mail containing adult content to also include an advisory label in the subject line. Hart’s amendment calls for the U.S. attorney general to craft such a warning.

The amended bill doesn’t ban such electronic messages but punishes the sender with a fine and up to a 1-year prison term if the e-mail advertisement is sent to anyone without including the special advisory.

Free-speech experts say they welcome efforts to decrease “spamming,” particularly the fraudulent sort. But they don’t support the bill passed on voice vote by the House Judiciary Committee in late May.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology claim that it is difficult to attach labels to e-mail in efforts to can spam. They warn that laws restricting sexually related messages could effectively restrict legitimate and mainstream content that happens to include sexual material.

Paula Bruening, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the bill essentially requires a government ratings program. She said ratings could be useful but only if they were developed voluntarily by private users.

“This really chills speech, and it creates forced speech,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s going to require government to make judgment calls about such speech and it’s not appropriate for government to take on that role. We think discretion needs to lay with the user.”

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, disagreed, saying the legislation focuses only on those who send fraudulent e-mail or pornography via the Internet.

“Through this narrower focus, I believe this legislation addresses fraudulent e-mail without drifting into the first major federal regulation of online commerce,” Sensenbrenner said.

Business leaders testifying before the committee took a different tack, however, expressing concern that an overbroad law would stifle their work online. They urged committee members to craft narrowly tailored bills that wouldn’t hinder legitimate businesses.

Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy for, said he worried that federal spam laws would place burdens on online retailers that they wouldn’t face offline and spark numerous lawsuits over unintentional e-mails.

Rick Lane, director of Internet technology for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he agreed that government must explore ways to stop fraudulent e-mail. But he warned that it must not do so under the auspices of protecting citizens’ privacy.

“It may be an annoyance, the e-mail may be fraudulent, but receiving e-mail from a legitimate business or individual is not an invasion of privacy,” Lane said. “Receiving e-mail is no more of an invasion of one’s privacy than receiving a letter in the mail.”

Marc Lackritz, president of Securities Industry Association, said Congress must recognize that while everyone claims to dislike “spam,” not everyone defines it the same way.

“This bill does not stop with fraudulent or misleading commercial e-mail,” Lackritz said. “It seeks to restrict and preclude legitimate commercial communications.”

Horowitz of the Media Coalition agreed, noting that the legislation might also restrict e-mails between private parties sending suggestive material to each other.

“There’s not a specific definition of what you would have to rate and what you wouldn’t have to rate to avoid the risk of prosecution,” he said.

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