The new anti-spam law signed by President Bush on Tuesday won't take effect until Jan. 1, but already some experts are expressing concerns that the measure is likely to fail and may actually increase the amount of spam clogging in-boxes in 2004.
Detractors say the Can-Spam Act will create a safe haven for e-mail marketers willing to follow certain rules for spamming. By effectively legalizing solicitations that previously occupied a legal gray area, the law could open the floodgates to a new breed of unwanted mail.
Supporters, however, note that the law takes the first concrete steps toward the creation of a national "do-not-spam" list, akin to the successful anti-telemarketing list that was launched in September. The law also bans the practice of falsifying the "to" and "from" information in e-mail solicitations -- a common tactic used by spammers to trick users into opening messages and to hide the source of the spam -- and sets hefty civil and criminal penalties for violators.
The law's success, both sides agree, depends on several factors, including how much state and federal law enforcers can prosecute illegal junk e-mail operations; whether or not the Federal Trade Commission can design an effective do-not-spam list; and whether setting rules for legitimate marketing e-mail prompts bulk e-mailers to play by rules that give recipients an easy way to opt out of future mailings.
"If the bill is enforced, we probably are going to get rid of some of the bottom-feeder spammers -- the pornographers, the herbal Viagra dealers and the relatives of dead Nigerian dictators," said John Mozena, co-founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE).
But Mozena said any junk e-mail that's stopped by the law will be more than replaced by a deluge of "legitimate" offers suddenly legalized by the anti-spam measure. For example, the Can-Spam Act says marketers can send as many e-mail solicitations as they want, as long as the messages include accurate "from" addresses, truthful subject lines and clear "unsubscribe" links.
"It doesn't actually tell anybody not to spam; it just tells them they have to be honest while they are doing it," Mozena said.
E-mail marketers are certain to take advantage of the law to send legal, properly formatted spam, predicted Julian Haight, who runs the anti-spam site Spamcop.net.
"Now that they have a recipe for what they're allowed to do, they're going to do it," he said.
To further back up their claims that the Can-Spam Act might lead to a wave of legitimized commercial e-mail, anti-spam activists like Mozena highlight the Direct Marketing Association's endorsement of the Can-Spam Act.