No Simple Solution to The Spam Problem, FTC Tells Congress

Solutions Will Depend on Cooperative Efforts Between Government and Private Sector

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The Federal Trade Commission told Congress today that there is no simple solution to solve the problem of spam. Speaking before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittees on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection and Telecommunications and the Internet, Howard Beales, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection told the members that a solution would require a balanced combination of technology fixes, law enforcement, consumer and business education, and legislation. "Virtually all of the panelists at the Commission's recent Spam Forum opined that the volume of unsolicited e-mail is increasing exponentially and that we are at a 'tipping point' requiring some action to avert deep erosion of public confidence that could hinder, or even destroy e-mail as a tool for communication and online commerce," Beales said. He said the consensus of participants agreed that a solution to the problem is important, but cannot be found overnight. "There is no quick or simple 'silver bullet.'" Beales testified. "Rather, solutions must be pursued from many directions -- technological, legal, and consumer action. Such solutions will depend on cooperative efforts between government and the private sector."

The testimony states that as Congress considers legislative solutions to the problem of spam, they should consider enhancing enforcement tools, supporting development and deployment of technological tools to fight spam, and enhancing business and consumer education. The FTC suggested certain amendments and technical changes to the FTC Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and the Right to Financial Privacy Act that would simplify and expedite the agency's attempt to go after deceptive spam.

Beales said that whether through direct legislation or through FTC Rulemaking, certain unlawful practices should be prohibited, including:

  • using false header or routing information;
  • using false information in the subject line;
  • using false claims that an unsolicited e-mail was solicited;
  • using false claims that an opt-out message will be honored;
  • sending e-mail after the recipient has asked not to receive additional messages;
  • failing to provide a reasonable means to opt out of receiving future e-mail messages; and,
  • sending e-mail to an address obtained through harvesting or a dictionary attack.

Beales said that any statute also should prohibit others from assisting or facilitating other parties engaged in these violations. The agency also recommended that legislation targeting spam "embody the same standard of liability," and enforcement provisions as those in the FTC Act and other FTC rules, so the agency's ability to enforce specific anti-spam statues would not be hampered.

"E-mail provides enormous benefits to consumers and businesses as a communication tool," the testimony says. "The increasing volume of spam to ISPs, to businesses, and to consumers, coupled with the widespread use of spam as a means to perpetrate fraud and deception, puts these benefits at serious risk. The Commission looks forward to continuing its research, education, and law enforcement efforts to protect consumers and businesses from the current onslaught of unwanted messages."

The Commission vote to issue the testimony was 5-0.

Copies of the testimony are available from the FTC's Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1 877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

(FTC File No. P02 4407)

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