Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris said Tuesday that efforts in Congress to establish a list of Internet users who don't want "spam" e-mails won't fix the growing problem.
"If such a list were established, I'd advise customers not to waste their time and effort," Muris said at the Aspen Summit, a telecommunications and technology conference. "Most spam is already so clearly illegitimate that the senders are no more likely to comply with new regulations than with the laws they now ignore."
Muris said he often is asked about a national anti-spam list because of the success of the FTC's do-not-call registry for people who want to block telemarketing calls. Since the list opened June 27, more than 32 million phone numbers have been registered. The FTC will begin enforcing the list Oct. 1.
"Unlike telemarketers or direct mail users, spammers can easily hide their identity and cross international borders," Muris said.
Spam now accounts for more than half of all e-mail sent, said Jeanne Hornung, a spokeswoman for Brightmail, a San Francisco company that helps Internet providers block spam before it reaches users' inboxes. Only 7 percent of e-mail was spam in 2001.
In 2001, complaining consumers forwarded 10,000 junk e-mails each day to the FTC. The agency now receives 130,000 such messages daily.
"In the end, spam will be reduced, if at all, through several technological improvements, as well as safer computing practices by users," Muris said. He said Internet service providers must provide customers with more tools for blocking spam.
Muris said government intervention is needed, but none of the several proposals in Congress will do much to help and could make the problem worse by making it harder for the FTC to prosecute spammers. He said one Senate bill would make it more difficult to sue sellers who hire third-party spammers who send deceptive e-mail.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has pushed for a national do-not-spam registry, defended his proposal.
"The FTC chairman says nothing will work, but Americans know something has to be done," Schumer said. "A do-not-spam list isn't going to solve all the problems with spam, but it's the most broad-based and aggressive approach we know."
In June, FTC officials asked lawmakers for more powers to police deceptive or unwanted e-mail. The FTC wants authority to delay notifications to spammers that they are under investigation for deceiving consumers. When the FTC now requests records from Internet service providers, the provider may alert the person under investigation.
Muris said, "It may be impossible to prosecute enough spammers to have a serious deterrent effect, let alone stop, or even slow down, the problem."
By David Ho