Educators frustrated by the amount of junk eMail, or “spam,” clogging school servers each day, take heart: Several government and industry efforts are under way to ease the problem. Whether they’re new laws or emerging technologies, however, some skeptics question how effective these measures will be.

The volume of spam has reached a critical threshold that requires swift action to protect the internet correspondence millions of people take for granted, regulators concluded May 2 at the end of a three-day forum on the issue in Washington, D.C.

“Things are worse than we imagined,” said Eileen Harrington, director of marketing practices for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which sponsored the forum. “There is consensus that the problem has reached a tipping point. If there are not immediate improvements implemented across the board by technologists, service providers, and perhaps lawmakers, eMail is at risk of being run into the ground.”

Harrington said that was the impression left by the dozens of technology experts, government officials, industry executives, and lawyers who flocked to Washington to discuss the problem of unwanted commercial eMail and what to do about it.

In March, 45 percent of all eMail sent across the United States was spam, according to Brightmail, a San Francisco-based anti-spam company. That’s up from 16 percent in January 2002.

For schools that provide students with eMail accounts, the problem is particularly serious, because much of spam is offensive or pornographic in nature.

Most of the panelists at the FTC forum agreed that a strong federal anti-spam law is needed and would be better than the mix of local laws now in 29 states.

Steve Richter, an attorney with the eMail Marketing Association, said the current patchwork of state laws is confusing and harmful. He gave the example of a Washington state resident who receives spam from New York relayed through a computer in Nevada.

“What law can you tell either of the parties—the sender or the recipient—to follow?” he said.

In late April, Virginia enacted the harshest anti-spam law in the nation, giving authorities the power to seize assets earned from sending bulk unsolicited eMail pitches while imposing up to five years in prison for violators.

The penalties reportedly can apply even if the sender and recipients live elsewhere, because much of the internet traffic worldwide passes through northern Virginia—home to major internet service providers such as America Online and MCI, and a conduit to major federal communications hubs in neighboring Washington and its suburbs.

The new law targets commercial bulk eMail, with certain provisions that kick in when someone sends at least 10,000 copies of a message in a single day or makes at least $1,000 from one such transmission.

But Virginia’s law illustrates one challenge lawmakers and industry executives face in clamping down on spam: how to define what “spam” is.

The same provisions could affect noncommercial unsolicited eMail from charities, churches, political candidates, or perhaps even schools if they exceed the volume limit, said Tim Murtaugh, press secretary for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore. That means an employee of a large school system potentially could be prosecuted for sending out unsolicited bulk eMail messages to parents and other stakeholders.

John R. Levine, a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial eMail, applauded tougher penalties for spammers, but questioned how effective Virginia’s law will be.

“It depends on prosecutors to put them in line along with rapists, murderers, and wife-beaters, so I don’t think it will be very effective without additional funding,” Levine said.

In a study released April 29 in advance of its forum, the FTC said a third of spam eMail messages contain false information in the “from” line to obscure a sender’s true identity.

Nearly half of this misleading information involves attempts to claim a personal relationship with the person receiving the eMail message.

Spammers also use misleading subject lines to get their pitches read, the FTC said. Many messages claim to be personal or business correspondence by using subject lines like “your order’s status.”

In Congress, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said she would seek federal legislation offering rewards for individuals who help track down spammers. Her bill would require marketers to label spam as “ADV:” and prohibit false or misleading message headers.

State laws with similar provisions have been hard to enforce, because they require tremendous resources to track down elusive spammers.

Lofgren’s bill would give individuals incentive to do the legwork by offering a bounty to the first person to report the spam and provide information helpful to investigators. The bounty would amount to 20 percent of any civil fines collected by the FTC.

In other federal action, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed a national “do not spam” registry, similar to an FTC service that is to begin blocking unwanted telemarketing calls this fall. And a pending anti-spam bill proposed by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would require spam to have a valid return address.

Some forum participants were skeptical that these federal proposals would do the job.

“New laws that are unenforceable for myriad reasons or that are overtaken by the advances of technology have the potential to do more harm than good,” FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle said. “No single law, no single new technology, no new initiative, no new meetings are going to solve this problem alone.”

John Patrick, chairman of the industry-supported Global Internet Project, said any United States law would do little to stop spam from other countries—and the only solution is blocking it with new technology.

In late April, AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft announced a joint initiative to combat spam through techniques such as identifying and restricting messages with deceptive headers. But persistent spammers have found ways to dodge similar obstacles in the past.

FTC’s Harrington said the automated tools spammers use to “harvest” eMail addresses from the internet are “far more efficient and effective than we knew.”

“Spammers are provided with an endless menu of new and fresh eMail addresses to send to,” she said. “That accounts for a good deal of the exponential increase in volume.”

In 2001, the FTC received 10,000 junk e-Mails each day forwarded by complaining consumers. The agency now receives 130,000 messages daily.


FTC spam site