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FTC: Computer users seeing less spam, law helped

By , IDG News Service
December 20, 2005 11:14 AM ET

IDG News Service - Computer users are seeing fewer unsolicited commercial e-mail messages in their inboxes two years after the U.S. Congress passed an anti-spam law, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday.

The anti-spam law, called the CAN-SPAM Act, has provided the FTC and law enforcement agencies a new weapon to fight spam, but much of the reason computer users are seeing less spam is because they're using blocking software and services, said the FTC in a 116-page report to Congress. The volume of spam seems to be leveling off, and blocking technologies are keeping most spam messages away from inboxes, the FTC said.

"The e-mail landscape has changed significantly, largely for the better," the report says. "In essence, these developments suggest that spam has not, as once feared, destroyed the promise of e-mail."

Some in the technology community have questioned the law's effectiveness, but the FTC said CAN-SPAM has helped define a group of standardized best practices for sending commercial e-mail. The FTC did not recommend any changes to CAN-SPAM in its report, although it recommended Congress pass legislation, called the U.S. SAFE WEB Act, that would allow more international cooperation among law enforcement agencies fighting spam and other computer crimes.

CAN-SPAM - short for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing - has also given law enforcement agencies and ISPs an "additional tool" to fight spam by filing lawsuits against spammers, the report said. Law enforcement agencies and ISPs have filed more than 50 lawsuits against spammers in the past two years, the report noted.

Consumer groups and some IT security experts have questioned the effectiveness of CAN-SPAM. Consumer groups have criticized CAN-SPAM for allowing companies to send unsolicited commercial e-mail until a recipient opts out, instead of a tougher opt-in standard.

CAN-SPAM has been "largely ineffective," said Ray Everett-Church, counsel for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. "Most of the criticisms leveled at CAN-SPAM when it was passed have proven correct," he said. "CAN-SPAM's ineffectiveness was predictable because instead of outlawing the practice of spamming, the law largely set out rules that marketers could follow to make sure their spam was legal under the act."

Antispam vendor MX Logic found that 68% of e-mail traffic it scanned in 2005 was spam, down from 77% in 2004. But only 4% of unsolicited commercial e-mail complied with CAN-SPAM in 2005, up from 3% in 2004, the company said earlier this month.

Others also voiced doubts about CAN-SPAM. Instead of making the FTC largely responsible for fighting spam, Congress should pass a law holding ISPs responsible for passing on e-mail containing scams and malware, said Russ Cooper, editor of the NTBugtraq mailing list and a scientist at security vendor Cybertrust.

"We're not talking about excessive e-mails from Columbia House here, but instead e-mail offerings for drugs that really aren't, or goods that never appear," Cooper said. "Spam is so insidious these days that it is to the point that it seriously disrupts day-to-day business and creates a distinct loss of GDP [gross domestic product]."

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