State Is Trying To Can The Spam

June 30, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — This isn’t your father’s Spam.

No, it’s not the gelatinous, sodium-saturated World War II canned meat product that gained cult-like status in 1970 when Monty Python’s Flying Circus glorified its virtues in their Green Midget Café. That Spam was celebrated, usually with eggs, toast and juice, and not regulated like today’s sometimes-tasteless bulk e-mail version.

The state House and Senate took on that task with separate bills. The House passed its version, HB 4519, in May, while the Senate recently ratified SB 357. Although the bills do differ slightly, the measures share a lot of common ground.

  • Both would require senders to include “ADV” in the subject line, contain certain contact information, and a valid method for recipients to opt out of receiving future e-mails

  • Both would prohibit senders from using a third party Internet domain or site without permission, or from failing to identify a point of origin or transmission path.

  • Both would prohibit a person from possessing or providing software intentionally designed to falsify transmission information.

  • Both would require a sender to ensure that a recipient is removed from a mailing list when that request is made.

The Senate Bill, as offered by primary sponsor Sen. Michael Bishop (R-Rochester), would add the following:

  • Create the Electronic Mail Solicitation Program within the Department of Consumer and Industry Services and require CIS to keep a listing of e-mail addresses that don’t want to receive spam.

  • Require senders to register with CIS and pay a fee.

A spammer convicted of violating either version would face up to a year in prison and up to a $10,000 fine for each e-mail sent, and any funds the sender earned from spamming could be seized, similar to a drug violation.

In addition, both bills give the attorney general authority to take civil action against a spammer to collect any damages an action may have caused.

In the House version, primarily sponsored by Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), a spamming conviction would be considered a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000, if it was part of another crime.

“Spam is a nuisance to consumers and businesses, it clogs up computer servers and diverts employees from more productive tasks when they spend time deleting the unwanted junk e-mail,” said Huizenga, also vice chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee.

“Businesses have been unanimous in asking for relief from this unwanted and costly burden,” he added.

Huizenga cited a report from Business Week that said spam now accounts for a third of all e-mail traffic. Last year, that number was 8 percent.

“Complaints from businesspeople and private individuals have increased dramatically,” he said.

The fiscal impact of the Senate bill hasn’t been determined yet because revenue would depend on how many businesses and individuals registered with CIS and those costs would depend on the number of violations prosecuted. But the House estimated the prosecution cost at $67,000 per case.

Of course, the larger issue for the measure, once it becomes law, is enforcement. Kelly Bartlett, a legislative aide for Sen. Bill Hardiman, a secondary sponsor of the bill, said how strongly violators will be pursued will largely depend on the complaints the state receives.

“There is such a high motivation among people, like the phone call solicitations. People are beyond the point of irritation. The framework of 357 relies on the person contacting CIS and saying there is this company that keeps sending me stuff I don’t want,” said Bartlett.

“I think there is going to be a good bit of motivation, especially if there is an expectation that they’re not going to see these things anymore and these things keep popping up,” he added. “But at the same token, it is going to be a bit challenging.”

Bartlett said it would be very difficult to create a law that regulated spammers outside of Michigan, and very expensive to prosecute them for violations. But he noted that federal legislation would help with that issue in a way that is similar to the no-call registry for telemarketers that goes into effect this fall.

Bartlett also said more help in lightening the spam load could come from companies like Microsoft, which filed 15 lawsuits on June 17 against spammers in this country and the U.K. Microsoft accused the defendants of sending more than 2 billion deceitful spam messages to customers of MSN and Hotmail and is seeking injunctive and monetary relief.

“This is a global problem that requires a global solution,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel, to MSNBC.

The Michigan measure may go into effect in September. But Bartlett said that once the law is on the books, no one should expect all spam ads to immediately come to a screeching halt.

“It’s not going to be like the day after an election,” he said, “when we don’t see any more campaign commercials.”

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