Three-Day Hearings Could Lead to Regulatory Action

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The Federal Trade Commission today said it would hold a three-day workshop to discuss the problems of "spam," or unsolicited junk e-mail, and possible additional regulatory action.

"The proliferation of spam, and deceptive spam particularly, poses a threat to consumer confidence and participation in online commerce," the FTC said.

The cost of spam
The FTC said the three-day hearing, from April 30 to May 2, will focus on 14 different issues, such as costs and benefits of spam, including the costs Internet service providers spend on filtering, bandwidth and customer service that are passed on to consumers; viruses, Web beacons and spyware that may be attached to e-mail; wireless devices, text-based messaging and wireless e-mail; and deceptive routing and subject information in spam.

The FTC said it would use the

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workshop to look into recent private and governmental spam law enforcement actions; best practices for e-mail senders and receivers; evolving technologies to eliminate or negate spam; and structural changes to the way e-mail is sent, including proposals to reverse the cost model of e-mail. The FTC said it will also look at possibly blacklisting spammers.

Appealing to 'fraud operators'
As part of its announcement today, the FTC cited a study from the Radicati Group that suggests 32% of the 7.3 billion e-mail messages sent each day are spam. According to the FTC, the low cost of spamming sets is apart from other forms of unsolicited marketing, such as direct mail or telemarketing. Those marketing techniques, unlike spam, impose costs on marketers that may limit their use. And spam's low cost appeals to "fraud operators," who also can misuse technology to conceal their identity.

While fraudulent e-mails have been a growing focus of FTC enforcement actions, Brian Huseman, a lawyer for the FTC, said the agency has not held a formal workshop on spamming since 1997 and even then the subject was part of a forum on privacy.

"We want to explore some of the problems, technologies and solutions," Mr. Huseman said.

Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the FTC receives 100,000 spam complaints a month, with each complaint including a spam e-mail.

"[The workshop is] an attempt to assess where we have been and where we are going and figure out where we should go from here," he said. "Hopefully we will end up with a greater understanding on the law enforcement front that will help our targeting of cases and help us figure out how to pursue it and understand the costs."

Although the FTC has generally focused its enforcement actions on spammers who make fraudulent claims in their e-mails, in December it filed its first charge accusing a spammer of violating FTC's "unfairness" law for putting a phony address on a communication.

That action was filed against GM Funding and its principals, who sent e-mails suggesting they came from well-known financial institutions but were really looking to get information for mortgage refinancing or home equity loans.

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