WASHINGTON - Spam - those annoying and unwanted commercial messages that cram your e-mail box each day - is projected to triple in the next five years.
And although members of Congress vow new laws will crack down on unwanted spam, industry experts say there is very little that can be done to stop the torrent of unwanted pornography offers, invitations to join get-rich schemes, and free gift offers.
Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce telecommunications subcommittee, says he now has sufficient votes to get his panel to pass new legislation to curb spam by requiring e-mail marketers to include a working address in their message so people who get them can ask their names to be taken off the mailing list, and providing the Federal Trade Commission with authority to impose fines of up to $10 for each unlawful message up to a maximum of $500,000.
"This is a necessary step if we want to put an end to the rampant hyper-marketing choking the Internet," Burns said.
Some Internet privacy activists say the proposal doesn't go far enough, and business lobbyists are trying to scuttle the measure, fearing it opens the door to more federal regulation of the Internet.
Surveys show that the spam plague is worsening. Jupiter Media Metrix, a company that monitors Internet business trends, predicts that spam will triple current levels by 2006, with the average e-mail recipient receiving 1,400 messages a year. The first spam was sent only in 1997.
John Mozena, a spokesman for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail, a volunteer group established in 1997 to fight spam, said Congress should require e-mailers to get advance permission from Internet users before they can blitz people with e-mails, instead of requiring recipients of unwanted e-mails to try to get off lists after they have received the message.
He warned that Internet users have not yet seen the full marketing forces at work. If only 1 percent of the 24 million small businesses in the United States launched an e-mail campaign, that would mean 657 messages in each person's e-mail box each day, he said. "And all of that that would be legal under the bill."
Mozena said e-mail is one of the most popular technologies developed with the Internet, but warned it could become so burdened down with junk e-mail that people could stop using it. There is currently no effective software available that can block all unwanted e-mail, although some programs cut down on volume, and some major Internet providers offer to block random messages sent from some known mass-mailers.
The messages aren't cost-free to employers, who pay for the proliferation of spam through purchasing new computers capable of handling the large amount of data that imaged e-mail contains, and the lost productivity of employees weeding out messages they don't want or need.
Burns aide Eric Bovim put the cost to employers at about $400 per in-box each year. "One of our main concerns is that spam cuts down on productivity," Bovim said. He said that rural Internet users also are paying for the costs of unwanted mail because they are paying long-distance phone bills to get e-mail.
Ray Everett-Church, a San Jose, Calif., lawyer who has battled unsolicited e-mail since it started in 1997, said one solution Congress should consider is a blanket ban on junk e-mail, modeled on the 1991 law that banned the sending of unwanted commercial faxes to business fax machines.
"There are scant few junk faxes today," Everett-Church noted.
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