Congress Nears 'Can Spam' Law

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The House announced a surprise compromise Friday to impose tough new limits on sending unwanted commercial e-mails, moving Congress closer to its first-ever protections against irritating offers for prescription drugs, cheap loans and herbal remedies.

The compromise, expected to be approved in the House early Saturday, would outlaw the shadiest techniques used by many of the Internet's most prolific e-mailers and would include penalties of up to five years in prison in rare circumstances. The bill also would supplant even tougher anti-spam laws already passed in some states, including a California law scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, called the effort "an important first step in restoring consumers' control over their inboxes."

The measure largely mirrored the "Can Spam" legislation the Senate approved last month, offering supporters hope that slight differences could be resolved before Congress was expected to adjourn next week. The Bush administration has supported anti-spam efforts.

"Now we can go back to looking forward to opening our inboxes in the morning because we'll have notes from our friends rather than herbal supplements and mortgage offers," said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.

The House appeared to approve its compromise in a voice vote late Friday, but lawmakers called for a formal counted vote, which was delayed until early Saturday. The Senate passed its bill last month. The government's hurried efforts so late in the congressional session were fueled by Internet users fed up with e-mail inboxes clogged with unwanted offers for pornography and get-rich schemes.

The compromise bill would "end all of that nonsense and bring peace of mind back to everyone who sends and receives e-mail," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bills would prohibit senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail from disguising their identity by using a false return address or misleading subject line. They also would prohibit senders from harvesting addresses off Web sites and require such e-mails to include a mechanism so recipients can indicate they do not want future mass mailings.

Both bills authorize the Federal Trade Commission to establish a do-not-spam list, similar to the agency's popular do-not-call list of telephone numbers that marketers are supposed not to call. The FTC has criticized the idea, and the Direct Marketing Association has described it as "a bad idea that is never going to work."

"It's not going to solve all the problems, but it's the first real step," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "The public is demanding something. It's going to happen. We're going to get it done."

The term spam was applied to unwanted e-mails after a 1970 Monty Python skit in which an exasperated restaurant customer is urged to order the canned meat product until she screams, "I don't want any Spam!"

CBS Tech Analyst Larry Magid offers some advice for spam-burdened computer users.

  • Software filters can divert suspected spam into separate folders in your mail program. Other software screeners challenge the sender to answer a simple question before accepting the e-mail, something that automated spam programs cannot do.
  • Never buy anything advertised via spam, even if it is a good offer. You're just encouraging them.
  • Be careful how you reveal your e-mail address. Don't post it on the web or in public areas such as message boards or chat rooms and only reveal it to web sites you trust.
  • If you must post or reveal your address, use a "disposable" one such as a Hotmail or Yahoo Mail account.
  • Don't respond to any untrusted spammers, even if they offer you a way to remove yourself from their list. Those are often tricks, because once you respond, they know that yours is a valid address.
    • David Hancock

      David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.