One night soon after she was elected in 1998, Representative Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) spied an intriguing header while scanning her e-mail: "Click here to see what the federal government doesn't want you to know." Thinking the message might offer juicy examples of federal waste, fraud, or abuse, Wilson followed the link--and found herself in a pornographic Web site.
Appalled, Wilson vowed to curb such cyber come-ons. Now, Congress is weighing no fewer than four anti-spam bills, with Wilson's leading the pack in the House. Despite marketers' opposition, both the House and Senate are taking up the measure--and passage is expected. "I think it will become law this year," says House Energy & Commerce Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.).
It's easy to see why lawmakers are on the warpath. More than 115 million Americans now go online, according to the Commerce Dept. And as the Web and cybermail have become indispensable, spam--or junk e-mail--has exploded. EarthLink, the No. 2 U.S. Internet service provider, estimates that spam accounts for one-quarter to one-third of all incoming messages to its networks and those of other ISPs.
The flood of pitches for everything from cheap mortgages to hot babes isn't just a nuisance--it's costing U.S. companies big bucks. Unlike direct-mail merchants, who must buy postage to distribute brochures and coupons, spammers don't pay to send and store their pitches. Instead, ISPs pick up the telecom tab. And ISPs must pay to weed out spam. EarthLink spends more than $1 million a year on systems to filter the annoying solicitations and on a spam-fighting "abuse team."
As a result, Internet user groups and ISPs have been clamoring for help from Congress. Spam is by far the biggest complaint of his wired constituents, says Representative Gene Green (D-Tex.), co-sponsor of Wilson's bill. And Congress, having been handed a rare opportunity to protect consumers and the Net at the same time, is happy to ease their pain.
Wilson's measure, which the House Energy & Commerce Committee approved unanimously on Mar. 28, would hand aggrieved consumers and ISPs more weapons to fight back. The bill requires junk e-mail marketers to use accurate return addresses. It also allows consumers to order spammers to take their names off Internet mailing lists the same way they can now place themselves on "do not call" telemarketing lists. ISPs would get Congress' blessing to block anything they think is spam. Marketers who persist in targeting those who choose to be spam-free could be sued for $500 per message, up to $50,000 per violation.
GATEKEEPERS. Not surprisingly, marketers are battling back. Financial-services firms such as Bank of America and Merrill Lynch & Co. fret that they will be hamstrung in trying to attract stock buyers. Marketers also worry that ISPs would act as gatekeepers. "Consumers should have the option to say `no'--ISPs shouldn't opt out for them," says Jerry Cerasale, senior vice-president at the Direct Marketing Assn.
Meanwhile, privacy purists complain the bills are too weak because they let marketers spam until recipients nix future mailings, instead of requiring consumers' consent first. Even a few ISPs are ambivalent. Some smaller providers fear that their bigger brethren could squash competition by using a provision in the bill to label as spam all e-mail from lesser rivals. "We don't need to authorize these guys to lynch people just to get rid of spam," fumes Dave McClure, president of the U.S. Internet Industry Assn.
But even the bills' foes concede that the most they can do is water down the legislation. There are just too many irate, sick-of-spam voters for lawmakers to ignore. Guess who's not running for President? Representative Howard Coble. Yes, the crusty North Carolina Republican issued a cheeky press release on Apr. 9 "vehemently" denying that he had any interest in the 2004 contest, despite a recent trip to New Hampshire. Coble, 70, joins a growing list of lawmakers who are professing disinterest in a White House run while simultaneously planning visits to the showdown states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Among the other non-candidate visitors: Democratic Senators John Edwards of North Carolina, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joseph Biden of Delaware, and John Kerry of Massachusetts; maverick GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona; and Republican Representative Robin Hayes, also of North Carolina. The difference between Coble and most of the others: The Dems are actually testing the waters for a race against President Bush. In 1999, when Robert Smith (R-N.H.) took the helm of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, he had a 0% confidence rating from the League of Conservation Voters. Since then, Smith has changed his stripes. He pushed a bill to restore the Everglades, brokered a deal on brownfields cleanup, opposed oil drilling in Alaska, and backed action on global warming. Smith says he's always been green. But enviros credit the reelection challenge he faces in 2002. Smith's likey Democratic foe: New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who's pushing her own plans to combat air pollution, global warming, and sprawl.