The Federal Trade Commission yesterday gave limited endorsement to offering cash rewards to people who help track down e-mail spammers, suggesting that such bounties might work but in fewer circumstances than had been pushed by some anti-spam activists.
The agency said that although Internet-savvy sleuths often can crack the technical disguises used by spammers to hide their identities and locations, the amount of information they could gather that would lead to successful prosecutions would be limited.
Instead, the FTC said that if Congress decides to set up a bounty system, it should reward only whistle-blowers inside or close to spam operations, who could provide detailed evidence that would lead to the operations being shut down.
With spam continuing to bedevil businesses and consumers, Congress asked the FTC to study two possible techniques as part of the first federal anti-spam law passed late last year. In June, the FTC recommended against a do-not-spam registry that would have mirrored the popular do-not-call list for telemarketing, saying it would not work and might lead to more spam.
The idea of bounties for finding spammers has long been fodder for chatter on the Internet, where a loose corps of activists works to identify and disrupt spam operations. The notion drew particular credence when it was pushed by Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor and one of the country's foremost thinkers on cyberspace law and policy.
Lessig was so certain of the idea that in 2003 he said if Congress passed a law that provided for bounties and they did not work, he would quit his job.
But the major Internet providers, who have their own spam-fighting operations, counseled the FTC against the idea.
Microsoft Corp., for example, has made extensive use of rewards to help catch writers of computer viruses because it is nearly impossible to find them without inside information. But Sean Sundwall, a company spokesman, said rewards are less necessary to find spammers, especially if they sell products.
An America Online Inc. spokesman, Nicholas J. Graham, said the use of bounty hunters can create its own set of legal problems that could complicate prosecutions.
The FTC and corporate officials also acknowledged that because there is an extensive volunteer network of spam fighters on the Internet, such as the Spamhaus.org tracking group, there is less incentive to offer cash rewards.