Harris: Spam law lacks substance

Consumers can file complaints, but there is no e-mail registry.
Monday, September 1, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:02 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Spam, the scourge of the computer-dependent, has assumed official status as a public enemy in the state of Missouri. The question is, can the state stop spammers?

With little fanfare, the state’s spam-restriction law quietly went into effect last week.

The measure, passed by the General Assembly last spring, allows consumers to file complaints with the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Division if they receive unsolicited commercial e-mail, commonly known as spam.

Unlike the state’s telemarketing law, there is no official state registry where consumers can register to be freed from unsolicited commercial material.

The telemarketing law prohibits commercial calls to those who register their phone numbers with the state.

But lawmakers rejected the attorney general’s proposal for a similar registry against spam.

Instead, consumers may file complaints if the spammer puts false information in the message’s subject line, a tactic called “spoofing,” or fails to identify the message as a basic advertisement, or one that carries adult themes.

However, before notifying the attorney general’s office with these issues, the consumer must ask the offending spammer to stop sending messages. If the spammer ignores the request, the consumer may then file the complaint.

Attorney General Jay Nixon had launched an aggressive campaign earlier this year to persuade legislators that the registry was integral to the law’s success. His campaign failed.

Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, who supported Nixon by sponsoring an earlier bill that included the registry provision, said the current law doesn’t offer Missouri consumers adequate protection from spam.

“I couldn’t in good conscience support it,” he said.

Harris, one of the few House Democrats who voted against the measure, said the current law is riddled with loopholes.

“The measure is all style and no substance,” he said.

Nixon, in a July interview with the Washington Post, blamed powerful lobbyists — including those working for Microsoft — for changing the outcome of the law.

Internet service providers like Microsoft have resisted government efforts to impose restrictions on Internet and e-mail marketing.

Nixon’s press secretary, Jeff Holste, said the attorney general’s office plans to work with Internet service providers cooperatively to enforce the law.

Various studies have found a rapid growth in the amount of spam on the Internet.

According to two recent reports from the Gartner Group — a global technology research and consulting firm — spamming practices are being used not only to commit fraud, but also to commit cyberterror attacks against high-profile businesses and institutions.

The Gartner Group warns that the convergence of e-mail nuisance with criminal activity has increased the threat to personal computer security.

Spammers, who have employed virus-like tools to spread their messages in the past, are using more sophisticated techniques to circumvent barriers specifically designed to keep them out, the consulting firm reported.

Where does that leave Missouri consumers? As public complaints come in, the attorney general under the No Spam law may impose penalties of up to $5,000 per violation, with a maximum of $25,000, against offenders.

But Holste said the legislature did not appropriate funding for enforcement.

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