Senators again take aim at junk e-mail

Thursday, April 1, 1999

Four U.S. Senators recently introduced a bill designed to address problems caused by junk e-mail or spam.

The Inbox Privacy Act of 1999 – sponsored by Sens. Frank Murkowski, R- Alaska, Robert G. Torricelli, D – N.J., Conrad Burns, R – Mont., and Harry Reid, D – Nev. — would prohibit the sending of “unsolicited commercial electronic mail to another person” if that person submitted a request not to receive junk e-mail.

The bill also would impose numerous requirements on spammers — those who send junk e-mail or spam. Senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail messages would be required to include in the body of their messages:

  • The sender's name, physical address, e-mail address and telephone number.
  • “A clear and obvious notice” that the sender will cease sending further e-mail if the recipient types the word “remove” in a response.

Last year, Murkowski and Torricelli introduced a similar measure that unanimously passed the Senate but was not voted upon in the House.

However, the latest bill contains some differences from last year's version, including a so-called “domain-wide opt-out system,” which allows Web site operators and Internet service providers to put up what Murkowski calls an “electronic stop sign” to signify a desire not to receive unsolicited commercial e-mail.

Under the measure, customers of an Internet service provider “may elect to continue to receive transmissions of unsolicited commercial electronic mail” through their provider.

When the bill was introduced March 25, Torricelli said that “government regulation has the possibility to stifle the creativity and development of cyberspace.” However, he added that “a failure to address the problem of junk e-mail now poses a greater threat to the Internet than do minimal regulations.”

“Congress must move quickly to address this situation before junk e-mail becomes a serious impediment to the flow of ideas and commerce on the Internet,” he said.

Some groups, such as the Coalition Against Unsolicited E-Mail express concerns that the measure does not go far enough, though they support the bill's recognition of the “importance of pre-emptive domain-wide opt-out.”

Though stating that the Inbox Privacy Act of 1999 contains “a few encouraging advances over last year's bills,” CAUCE officials say they “cannot support it in its current form.”

John Mozena, the group's co-founder and vice president, said “a domain-wide opt-out system is a pale substitute for opt-in legislation – where a spammer can only send messages to those who affirmatively request such messages.”

“Under this bill, it is legal to spam people if [the spammer has] a valid address,” he said. “Spammers can still spam till their heart's content unless someone objects to it.”

Mozena says spam is more an issue of property rights than free speech. “It is not free speech if you are making someone pay for your soapbox and appropriating their resources,” he said.

However, the sponsors of the Inbox Privacy Act of 1999 say that an outright ban on spam might infringe on First Amendment free-speech rights. In his statement introducing the bill, Murkowski said: “Some wanted an outright ban on such solicitations, but banning non-fraudulent Internet commerce is a dangerous precedent to set, particularly where the problem today is caused by fraudulent marketers. I also recognize that there are First Amendment concerns raised by any Internet content legislation and am pleased that our approach has the support of civil liberties organizations.”

However, some constitutional experts warn that measures regulating unsolicited commercial e-mail could trample on commercial free-speech rights. Free-speech experts Robert O'Neil and Robert Corn Revere wrote in the Media Institute's The First Amendment and the Media 1999 that “the central question, which the courts have not yet addressed, is whether the nature of electronic advertising or commercial e-mail warrants a more drastic form of regulation.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee.