2 May 2003 The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will today wind up its three-day summit on the problem of spam, with the FTC chairman Timothy Muris making clear the need for US lawmakers to act decisively — or risk seeing the value of email undermined.
While so far inconclusive in terms of the action that needs to be taken, the FTC hearing has helped expose some flawed proposed legislation, such as the Weyden-Burns Can Spam Bill. This would allow spammers carte blanche to continue as long as they complied with certain minimal criteria.
“The politicians seem to be a couple of years behind the times… they seem to think that the biggest problems with spam are content based,” said one bemused observer.
The FTC’s own panel has also come down decisively in favour of opt-in legislation, meaning that commercial email can only be sent to people who have opted in to receive it. Anti-spam activist Mark Ferguson emphasized that it should be ‘confirmed opt-in’.
After a long tussle with the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), the European Union adopted tough opt-in legislation at the beginning of the year. The DMA — and spammers — advocate either no legislation or opt-out legislation, which would mean that users would only have the right to opt-out from unsolicited mailings.
The panel also heard some complaints about blacklisting services provided by organisations such as SPEWS and ORDB. These blacklist according to various criteria in terms of the IP address of the mail server from where the spam has been sent or relayed through.
However, these have been the subject of complaints from legitimate list service operators and other organisations who suggest that they frequently block valid email and that the decisions of blacklist operators are often arbitrary.
But Clifton Royston of Internet service provider (ISP) LavaNet said that if he did not use blacklisting then his ISP would be swamped. One of the biggest blacklists, the Spamhaus Blocklist (SBL), which tracks the operations of known spammers, filters the email of some 110 million Internet users worldwide.
The most vociferous opponents of such blacklists are normally the spammers themselves. Not least because such blacklists have shamed even the most recalcitrant of ISPs to deal with their spam problems. Many spammers have been forced offshore as a result.
What is clear from the FTC hearings is that the US will soon have national laws governing spam. But how strong they will be after Congress has finished with the proposed legislation is another matter.