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No Federal Bans Can Cut the ‘Spam,’ Report Concludes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A government-sponsored report concluded that no strong regulatory measures can be taken against those who flood the Internet with junk e-mail and unsolicited get-rich-quick schemes, even as it noted the rising cost in time and money caused by such messages.

The study, commissioned by the Federal Trade Commission and released Tuesday, recommended several small steps to deal with the problem, including software to filter out unwanted e-mail--known as “spam"--and a law prohibiting companies from disguising their e-mail addresses.

The report--prepared by several Internet companies and advocacy groups--cited 1st Amendment considerations for not taking stronger measures, such as an outright ban on junk e-mail.

“It is not a problem that is subject to easy or simple solutions,” Roger Cochetti, the director of Internet policy for IBM Corp., said at a news conference where the study was unveiled.

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But the Coalition Against Unsolicited E-mail, which also participated in the report, expressed dissatisfaction with its conclusion, citing concerns that junk e-mail will undermine public confidence in Internet commerce.

“The vast majority of junk mailers are based here in the United States and are selling snake oil from their basements and converted garages,” said Ray Everett-Church, the coalition’s representative. “The greatest fear we have is that people will lose faith in e-mail as a viable medium of commerce and communication.”

The report expressed concern about the growing amount of time computer users waste reading unwanted e-mail and the complaints of service providers whose systems are clogged by the messages.

“Spam is a problem for practically everyone who owns a computer,” said Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau. “It’s annoying, it slows down the e-mail system and a lot of it is fraudulent,” Bernstein said.

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But others who helped compile the report questioned whether a bill could be written that could pass constitutional muster.

“Banning the use of an entire medium for a specific type of speech--unsolicited commercial e-mail--is a drastic measure,” said Deidre K. Mulligan, staff counsel of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The FTC last year asked consumers to forward spam to a special electronic mailbox, and Bernstein said 250,000 pieces of unwanted commercial e-mail have been received. She also said the agency has taken legal action against five businesses for sending fraudulent or deceptive e-mail and issued warnings to another 1,000 possibly illicit spammers.

Bernstein said many of these people are simply unaware of federal and state laws against deceptive advertising in all media, including e-mail.

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Internet companies traditionally have been leery of any legislation that might interfere with the free-wheeling ways of the medium. But Jill Lesser, director of law and public policy for America Online, said many of the companies’ 12 million customers are fed-up with the flood of spam.

“The law as it stands now is not strong enough,” Lesser said.

* MILLENNIUM BUG: Clinton stresses the urgency of resolving the year 2000 computer glitch. D3


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