The U.S. Congress’ race to be tough on spam was ratcheted up when Senator Bill Nelson introduced a bill that would allow federal authorities to charge some spammers with racketeering crimes.
The Florida Democrat’s bill is the third bill introduced in Congress this year focusing on spam, not including a wireless spam bill introduced by Representative Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey, and a “Computer Owners’ Bill of Rights” that includes some antispam wording, introduced by Senator Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat.
Nelson’s bill would allow criminal charges under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), originally used to prosecute organized crime. RICO allows authorities to seize the assets of businesses engaged in racketeering, the practice of using an organization to obtain money illegally or intimidate people. It also lets victims of racketeering file civil lawsuits against the perpetrators, and a Nelson spokesman said a primary goal of the bill is to allow victims of spam to collect damages. Neither of the two previous antispam bills allowed for civil lawsuits, although several attendees at a U.S. Federal Trade Commission spam forum earlier this month called for laws that would allow civil actions.
“RICO lets you recover the assets from any ill-gotten gains,” said Dan McLaughlin, a Nelson spokesman.
Nelson said in a statement his bill was designed to target the worst spam: e-mail messages sent by people seeking money illegally or engaged in other illegal acts. “Using the RICO law will let us hit the bad guys where it really hurts — in the pocket,” Nelson said in the statement. “And the more firepower we give victims and prosecutors, the better.”
The racketeering charges would be applied to unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail that uses false routing information or forged return addresses, as well as spam sent to someone who asked to opt out. Spammers who harvest e-mail addresses for the purpose of sending unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail also would be subject to RICO charges, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison, plus criminal fines and the possibility of civil lawsuits. Nelson’s working definition of “bulk” is 10,000 messages, McLaughlin said, so the bill wouldn’t affect individual Internet users sending jokes to a dozen friends or legitimate marketers who have business relationships with their customers.
“If you send me something, you get one chance. If I say, ‘take me off the list,’ that’s it,” McLaughlin said. “If you send a million e-mails, it’d be our opinion that each one of those e-mails would be a separate act, and you’d have a million violations.”
Asked if racketeering charges might be overkill for spam, McLaughlin disagreed. E-mail gives criminals trying to prey on consumers with illegal investment schemes and other activities a bullhorn they didn’t have before, he said. “By use of technology, (a criminal) is exponentially increasing the number of victims,” McLaughlin said. “If anybody thinks we should not use the toughest legal means available, they should take another look at it.”
Nelson plans to work with the authors of two other antispam bills introduced in Congress, McLaughlin said. In early April, Senators Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, introduced the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act, which would provide criminal penalties for spammers who include misleading header information. Later in the month, Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from San Jose, California, introduced a bill that would allow Internet users to collect bounties for reporting spammers.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has also promised to introduce antispam legislation that would include a national do-not-spam registry. In addition, on Tuesday the Washington Post reported that Representatives W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, and F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, are drafting an antispam bill similar in some ways to the CAN-SPAM bill.
A Tauzin spokesman said Wednesday the congressman wasn’t yet prepared to comment on the bill. “He’ll talk about it after it’s introduced,” the spokesman said.
McLaughlin predicted a version of his boss’s antispam bill would pass Congress this year. “Ever since George Washington learned to ride a horse, nothing has passed in its original form,” he said.
Internet users are fed up with unsolicited commercial e-mail, McLaughlin added. “The issue has reached a critical mass,” he said. “People can’t deal with it any more.”