Each of the four major e-mail providers is involved in a nationwide effort to develop e-mail authentication technology that would make it harder for spammers to disguise their identities.
Anne Mitchell, chief executive of the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy, said the success of the law should not be measured solely on whether unwanted e-mail is reaching computer in-boxes.
America Online and others have filed suits to stop spammers, but many experts say technology, not litigation, is the key to reducing spam volume.
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"It's given prosecutors some very good tools, and if they wield them properly they can be successful," Mitchell said. "It was never about making spammers stop, it was about making what they were doing illegal so we could force them to stop. There's never 'instant anything' when you pass a new law. Look at any of the civil rights laws -- it's not like they passed and suddenly we had a utopian society."
One bright spot in the fight against spam appears to be America Online. In December, the nation's largest e-mail provider reported a drop-off both in the volume of e-mail hitting its network and in the amount of spam delivered to users' in-boxes in 2004. AOL fielded 1.6 billion e-mail messages in 2004, down from 2.1 billion in 2003, which AOL attributes almost entirely to a decrease in the amount of spam entering its network.
"We think the primary reason that spam is down on the service is because of our spam filtering, but we also absolutely believe that the federal Can-Spam law has had a deterrent effect," AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said. He pointed out that AOL is based in Virginia, home to the nation's stiffest state anti-spam law and first convicted spam felon.
Graham acknowledged that AOL has no way of measuring what portion of the drop-off can be attributed to legislative efforts. And if the laws have scared some spammers away from AOL, the effect hasn't carried over to the online population at large, Postini's Smith said. "It's quite possible that that's only true about the AOL domain. We're not seeing that trend on a whole across the Internet."
Yahoo, EarthLink and Microsoft have not released end-of-year spam statistics.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), said that while the effects may not have trickled down to users yet, the state and federal laws will eventually take their toll on spammers.
"The people out there who are the spam kingpins, I'm certain that they're aware of what we're doing here. I'm sure it will have at least a psychological impact in that they know we're serious," Murtaugh said. "We predict that it will make people have second thoughts. I don't think they ever thought what they were doing was going to land them in jail."
David McGuire is a staff writer for washingtonpost.com.