US lawmakers finally appear to be losing their patience over spam, with unsolicited e-mail now costing American business billions of dollars every year.
The Chairman of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, John McCain, told a Senate hearing on spam that e-mail had fundamentally changed the way people communicate, but "the growing affliction" of spam was threatening this development.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates also expressed his dismay at the spread of spam. In a letter to the Senate committee released at the hearing, he called for federal legislation to combat spam and independent, international organisations to push for improved industry practices.
"These authorities could provide mechanisms to identify legitimate e-mail, making it easier for consumers and businesses to distinguish wanted mail from unwanted mail," wrote Gates.
The hearing also heard that spam costs US businesses $10 billion each year in lost productivity. According to Enrique Salem, president of spam blocking company Brightmail, nearly half of all e-mails sent are spam. This compared, he said, with just seven percent in 2001.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has also seen an explosion in the number of complaints it receives from consumers about spam. In 2001, around 10,000 junk e-mails were forwarded to it each day from Internet users. That daily figure now stands closer to 130,000.
Such evidence seems to be having the desired effect on American lawmakers. Although Congress has failed to crackdown on spam in the past, following pressure from some retailers, marketing firms and business users of e-mail, it appears that tighter regulation will be introduced some time this year.
Two Senators, one Republican and one Democrat, have proposed a bill that would ban deceptive subject lines, require valid return addresses and order spammers to obey requests by e-mail users to stop sending them e-mail. In addition, Senator Schumer from New York wants an international anti-spam treaty.
For its part, Microsoft is seeking increased penalties for fraudulent practices by spammers. It is also pushing for an electronic seal-of-approval system for legitimate marketers and for unsolicited mails to be labelled as such so that e-mail users could delete them without having to open them.
AOL is another tech company pushing for harsher penalties for spammers. It wants Congress to look to Virginia's anti-spam laws, which were introduced last month. These allow the authorities to seize assets gained from sending bulk unsolicited e-mails and to sentence their senders to up to five years in prison.
Although not as harsh, California has recently approved a bill that will allow spammers to be sued $500 for each unsolicited e-mail they send. It also requires marketers to get advance approval from potential recipients if they do not already have a business relationship with them.
A similar three-year-old law in Denmark recently saw a small software company fined the equivalent of $2,200 for sending 156 advertising e-mail messages.