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Experts: CAN-SPAM Act to create more junk e-mail

DALLAS -- Recent headlines might leave the impression that spammers are about to be given the boot from our bloated e-mail inboxes.

 

The CAN-SPAM Act has just been signed into law, and New York's attorney general has joined mighty Microsoft in a lawsuit aimed at dismantling one of the largest junk e-mail networks in the country.

But many experts are warning that laws and lawsuits cannot quell the rising tide of unwanted X-rated come-ons and Viagra pitches. In fact, they say, the CAN-SPAM Act legitimizes spam. Lawsuits, meanwhile, are proving ineffective and may only force US spam operations off shore.

"It's going to get worse," says Doug Peckover, cofounder and chairman of Dallas-based software company Privacy Inc. "In fact, you may look back at 2003 as the good old days, before things got really out of control."

Peckover's company sells computer programs designed to help people track down and avoid unwanted e-mail solicitations, so his opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. But they are buttressed by dozens of nonprofit spam fighters, state attorneys general and consumer advocates.

In fact, about the only segment of the Internet industry happy with provisions of the law seems to be the direct marketing industry it supposedly regulates.

Those like Scott Hazen Mueller, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, believe the law is flawed because it doesn't tell marketers not to spam. Instead, he says, it gives them rules that make it easier.

"This law does not stop a single spam from being sent," Mueller says. "It only makes that spam slightly more truthful. It also gives a federal stamp of approval for every legitimate marketer in the US to start using unsolicited e-mail as a marketing tool."

The bill, signed Tuesday by President Bush, provides large fines and jail time for e-mail marketers who use tricky and misleading ways to con e-mail recipients into purchasing products, viewing pornography, or being scammed.

It also bans tactics such as using false return addresses and requires adult-themed messages to be labeled. The law authorizes the Federal Trade Commission to set up a "Do Not Spam" or "opt-out" registry of Internet users, similar to the agency's popular "Do Not Call" telemarketing list.

But the Internet is not like a regulated telephone service and cannot be legislated like one, critics say. Spammers based in Hong Kong will be unlikely to heed any of the regulations or the opt-out registry, they say.

Beyond that, outlawing forged return addresses and fake headers may reduce "bad" spam. But, in its place, thousands of other "legal" messages can now be sent. Every company now has one legitimate shot at sending a consumer e-mail. And it only has to stop when given specific instructions by the consumer or through the FTC registry.

The Internet Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General has steadily opposed the new federal law, saying key provisions are full of loopholes.

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