Microsoft proposes law on junk e-mail

Like several bills already proposed or being drafted, the software giant wants increased penalties for the fraudulent practices of many spammers who peddle diet fads, get-rich-quick schemes and pornography.

But the company is also pushing for an electronic seal-of-approval system for all e-mail marketing, to ensure that legitimate marketers meet high standards and to help consumers weed out unsavory or unwanted spam.

Under the company’s plan, unsolicited commercial e-mail would have to be labeled with “ADV” — short for advertisement, a system used in some states and proposed in a bill by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) The new wrinkle, however, is that companies could forgo the label if they join a “trusted sender” program that mandated e-mail marketing rules, such as ensuring that consumers are removed from mailing lists if they request it.

The rules would be set by industry and technology groups, administered by a third party and overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, said Ira Rubinstein, Microsoft associate general counsel.

The proposal comes at a time of heightened attention on Capitol Hill to spam. The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing today on the problem, after two of its members, Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), recently joined forces to introduce legislation.

Previous attempts in Congress to regulate junk e-mail failed, but with spam now accounting for roughly 40 percent of all e-mail traffic, analysts expect some form of legislation to pass this year. Lobbyists for the technology, Internet access, marketing and retailing industries, as well as consumer groups, are working to influence the crafting of various bills.

One widely anticipated bill, to be sponsored by Reps. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), was scheduled to be introduced last week but was pulled back for revisions after it was criticized as being too weak by consumer groups and state prosecutors. Sources on Capitol Hill said they now expect it to be introduced later this week.

But the bill has already lost some support, including from Republicans. A spokesman for Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), said yesterday the congresswoman could not support the bill and will be introducing a different measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Gene Green (D-Tex.).

The rancor over the Tauzin-Sensenbrenner bill highlights the deep divisions over the best way to attack spam.

The marketing and retailing industries want legislation to focus on spammers that fraudulently disguise their origin, gather e-mail addresses by using special software to “scrape” them off of Internet Web pages, and sell unsavory products or services.

They fear overly restrictive laws will damage the ability of legitimate marketers to send advertising that might interest consumers. In addition, they want one federal law to govern spam, rather than the current patchwork of state statutes that vary in approach and strength.

And they want consumers to be prohibited from suing spammers directly, fearing nuisance suits when marketers make honest mistakes.

Anti-spam organizations and other consumer and privacy advocates argue that any unsolicited commercial e-mail, regardless of the legitimacy of the sender, is spam. At minimum, these organizations want computer users to be able to sue, states to be able to experiment with different laws, and marketers to be prevented from sending e-mail unless specifically requested by consumers.

In the middle are e-mail account providers, whose networks bear the brunt of the flood of spam and whose users are irate when spam slips through software designed to filter it out.

The three largest, Microsoft, America Online and Yahoo Inc., are trying to balance the needs of their e-mail users with their own businesses, which often rely on advertising and marketing of other services.

None carries more individual clout than Microsoft, which has one of the largest lobbying operations in Washington. Although the company participated in several sessions to help craft the Tauzin-Sensenbrenner bill, Rubinstein said the company would only throw its weight behind a bill that included the trusted-sender notion.

“Our approach is premised on shifting costs back to the senders,” Rubinstein said. “It’s like junk mail and telemarketing,” both of which cost marketers, as opposed to e-mail advertising that is virtually cost-free.

In addition to the public seal of approval for marketers that abide by certain rules, the technology industry would develop a digital tag that would further help spam filters weed out untrustworthy mail, he said.

But initial reaction to the idea was tepid. A spokesman for AOL said the trusted-sender idea has been discussed among a coalition formed recently between Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL to fight spam, but he is not sure it makes sense to include it in legislation.

Yahoo had no specific comment on the proposal.

Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Information Privacy Center, said the proposal does not address the core need of consumers, which is to be free of commercial e-mail unless they specifically request it.

Representatives of the direct-marketing industries said they have initiated trusted-sender guidelines for their members, and support the idea of a seal-of-approval system. But they said the are skeptical that any mandatory-labeling provision would be effective.

Source: The Washington Post