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Has Spam Been Canned?

HOW SUCCESSFUL HAS the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 (also known as “CAN-SPAM”), which took effect at the start of 2004, been in slowing down the onslaught of spam? If you judge merely by the number of unwanted messages that arrive in your e-mail in-box each day, your answer might be that the law seems to have had little effect.

But according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible for analyzing the act’s effectiveness and making recommendations for changes, the act has given the FTC, the Department of Justice, and Internet service providers (ISPs) the ammunition to bring dozens of actions against alleged spammers; many of these legal actions are still in progress, but many others have already resulted in settlements.

The FTC has released Effectiveness and Enforcement of the CAN-SPAM Act, a report to Congress which concludes that the law has been effective in achieving two outcomes. “First, the substantive provisions of the Act have mandated adoption of a number of commercial email ‘best practices’ that many legitimate online marketers are now following. Second, the Act has provided law enforcement agencies and ISPs with an additional tool to use when bringing suit against spammers.”

The report notes, however, that while spam volumes have leveled off, there have also been some “troubling changes” since the law went into effect, such as “a shift toward the inclusion in spam messages of content that is increasingly malicious,” such as malware. Another unfortunate change has been the efforts of those generating spam to stymie law enforcement “by using increasingly complex multilayered business arrangements” to hide behind.

Another obstacle noted is the foreign origin of many spam messages. The FTC urges Congress to pass the US SAFE WEB Act, introduced by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), which would allow the FTC “to share confidential information in its files in consumer protection matters with foreign law enforcers,” and which would allow the FTC to conduct investigations and discovery to help foreign law enforcement agencies when necessary. The legislation has thus far passed the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Chris Matthews, a staff member of Senator Smith, says that he’s seen no major objections to the bill and expects that it will be attached to or combined with a larger piece of telecommunications legislation.