Only a few days ago, an e-mail came to my office from one Princess Johnson. The author of the message wrote that she was the daughter of an African gold merchant who had been poisoned by his business associates.
Why was Princess Johnson writing to me? "Before the death of my father," she wrote, "he secretly called me to his bedside and told me that he has the sum of $12 million in gold dust, [and] that he used my name as his only next of kin in depositing the funds." Continuing, Princess Johnson explained that if I would do a few favors for her – provide a bank account and make arrangements for her to come to America – I would be entitled to a chunk of the secret fortune in gold.
It's pretty safe to say that there is no Princess Johnson. It's also pretty safe to say that whoever sent the e-mail had no idea who I was or even what country I was in.
On average, I receive about a dozen e-mails from various African countries each week, all explaining some complicated way I can profit in a financial scheme. One recent e-mail tells me how I can get rich off the estates (stored in South Africa) of those aboard the Concorde that crashed a few years ago; another would allow me to cash in on the Nigerian National Petroleum Company. And these are just the beginning.
E-mail solicitations telling me how I can buy a nursing, engineering, or criminal justice degree online, for a very reasonable fee, prompted me to investigate "diploma mills," bonus schools that sell fraudulent degrees and other academic credentials.
Other messages contain lewd pictures and offer medications to "improve any marriage." Still other e-mail messages, generated by computers and not people, mimic real addresses. I recently got one phony message from my colleague, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, or so my computer said. Inside the message were a few random characters, a "hello"... and a virus. It's safe to say that my friend Senator Lugar didn't send that message!
Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (UCE) – usually just known as SPAM – is a growing scourge on the information superhighway, making the Internet increasingly unsafe for children and bringing massive congestion and confusion. I receive literally thousands of unwanted e-mails every month, and the process of sorting actual constituent mail from SPAM is becoming both time-consuming and expensive. I am sure that many of you can relate. Millions of Americans sift through sleaze and scams in their inboxes every day. E-mail is a wonderful communications tool, allowing people to write to one another and send information instantly over any distance. But if SPAM abuses continue to grow, e-mail will become less and less useful.
According to Ferris Research, a company specializing in communications technology, SPAM costs U.S. firms $8.9 billion annually in lost worker productivity, consumption of bandwidth, and the use of technical support to configure and run filters to keep out unwanted messages. Consumers, meanwhile, waste their time figuring out which e-mails they receive are legitimate and which are not, deleting SPAM and undeleting messages mistakenly labeled as SPAM, paying for filters, and trying to get rid of the viruses many SPAM messages contain.
Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has estimated that 90 percent of the SPAM involving investment and business opportunities, and nearly half of the spam advertising health products and services, and travel and leisure, contains false or misleading information. This inevitably undermines our confidence in information provided through the Internet and our willingness to take part in legitimate electronic commerce. Steps are underway, however, to limit the reach of SPAM. Late last year, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the "Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act." This legislation, which I co-sponsored, requires the senders of commercial e-mail to include a clear "opt-out" mechanism to allow consumers to be removed from mass e-mail lists. This "opt-out" must also be clearly described in the e-mail itself, so that users of e-mail are not forced to sift through pages of legalese to determine how to stop unwanted messages. The senders of commercial e-mail must also provide a valid physical postal address so that they are not able to hide their identities, as so many SPAMers tend to do. Finally, e-mail marketers must include notice that the e-mail is an advertisement.
In cases where e-mail marketers don't comply with the CAN -SPAM bill, the penalties are strong. SPAMers are liable for damages of up to $250 per e-mail, with a cap of $2 million. What is more, the penalty can be tripled if particularly unethical methods are used, such as "computer hijacking" – which sends SPAM by taking control of the computers of legitimate users without their knowledge – or "harvesting" addresses from legitimate websites. There is no cap on the damages for criminal SPAMers who try to hide their identities by using false header information. The CAN -SPAM Act also includes enforcement authority for the FTC so that it can close the loopholes SPAMers might try to exploit as technology continues to improve. Granting the FTC the ability to keep pace with the new techniques of SPAMers is crucial because these criminals are growing more and more sophisticated in their methods. Any attempt to regulate the Internet should be considered very carefully, and it is essential that the rules we impose respect the boundaries and principles of the First Amendment. But without action, the freedom of Americans to communicate electronically is threatened by the lack of rules governing SPAM, and Congress has taken a very positive step in passing the CAN-SPAM Act. I am hopeful that this legislation will provide the necessary guidelines that will allow both personal and commercial use of the Internet to continue to flourish.