Internet users have complained about mailboxes clogged with offers for prescription drugs, cheap loans, herbal remedies and pornography.
The Senate voted 97-0 to approve the "Can Spam" bill. The measure outlaws the shadiest techniques used by many of the Internet's most prolific e-mailers, who pump out millions of unsolicited messages daily. Despite the vote, senators cautioned computer users not to expect an immediate end to overflowing inboxes.
"The odds of us defeating spam by legislation alone are extremely low, but that does not mean we should stand idly by and do nothing about it," said John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., prohibits senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail from disguising their identity by using a false return address or misleading subject line. The legislation also bans senders from harvesting addresses off Web sites and requires such e-mails to include a mechanism so recipients can indicate they do not want future mass-mailings.
The Bush administration supports the bill, although similar legislation has stalled in the House. Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, missed the vote.
"Kingpin spammers who send out e-mail by the millions are threatening to drown the Internet in a sea of trash, and the American people want it stopped," Wyden said. Acknowledging problems with e-mails originating overseas, he urged other countries to approve similar limits.
Burns said time spent by consumers wading through unwanted messages and the costs to businesses and Internet providers delivering them were "escalating and wide-ranging." Under the bill, he said, "people will think twice before they send it, and that's the answer."
Burns said he and Wyden worked more than three years on the legislation.
"The overwhelming message from consumers and industry alike is that something needed to be done and I am happy to say today we succeeded in that effort in the Senate," Burns said.
Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., also voted for the legislation.
"While our actions will not eliminate spam entirely, it puts the worst spammers on notice that we will not tolerate their actions any more," Baucus said.
The bill also requires commercial e-mail senders to include their physical address, along with a clear notice that the message is an advertisement or sales pitch.
Violators could be sentenced for up to three years in prison under an amendment by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., leaders of the Judiciary Committee. Their provision explicitly bans spammers from, among other practices, hacking into computers to use as surreptitious relay points to disguise the origin of unwanted e-mails.
Hatch said the bill cracks down on unwanted e-mails "without unnecessarily burdening legitimate electronic commerce." The bill was supported by some leading technology companies, such as Microsoft Corp. and America Online, a division of Time Warner Inc. Microsoft blocks roughly 2.4 billion unwanted e-mails daily from subscribers.
Technology companies have developed increasingly sophisticated software to filter unwanted e-mails, but legislation would give consumers one more tool to combat spam. The term 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!"
One amendment, by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., authorizes 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 Direct Marketing Association opposes that amendment and has described it as "a bad idea that is never going to work."
By Ted Bridis