Senate Panel Clears Anti-Spam and Online Privacy Bills

On May 17, 2002, the Senate Commerce Committee cleared privacy and anti-spam bills for votes by the full Senate. The timing of the votes by the Senate is unclear, especially for the privacy bill which was opposed by large dot-coms, including, along with businesses in a wide range of industries led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The online privacy bill was sponsored by Sen. Ernest Hollings. It would require online businesses to get consumer consent before collecting sensitive, personal information, such as Social Security numbers, medical data, or financial records. Companies that violate this law could be fined and/or sued by consumers. To ensure online businesses are not treated more harshly than other businesses, the privacy bill authorizes the Federal Trade Commission to develop similar rules for offline businesses, such as direct marketers, within six months of enactment. Businesses with 25 or fewer employees are exempt from the bill.

The anti-spam bill is one of three bills sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden. It would:

  • Require electronic marketers to include a workable return address that would allow recipients to refuse future e-mails.
  • Prohibit false subject lines and subject those who intentionally disguise their identities when sending spam e-mail to criminal penalties.
  • Give state attorneys and Internet service providers the ability to bring suit to keep unlawful spam off their networks.
  • Allow the FTC to impose civil fines of as much as $10 a message, up to a maximum of $500,000 (or triple that if the courts find the violations were willful).

About twenty states have already enacted some form of restriction on spam, and another dozen states are considering legislative action. But state laws have limited impact because federal law bars states from imposing restrictions on interstate trade. To check the laws in your state, go to David E. Sorkin's spam law Web site.

Download S. 630, the Can Spam Act and S. 2201, the Online Personal Privacy Act.

-Rosemary Schlank

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