WASHINGTON - A broad international effort by government and industry is needed to stop the torrent of junk e-mail that threatens Internet commerce and correspondence, lawmakers were told Wednesday.
"Spam" now accounts for 46 percent of all e-mails sent, said Enrique Salem, president of Brightmail, a San Francisco company that helps Internet providers block spam before it reaches users' inboxes. He told lawmakers that half of e-mail will be spam by December, up from 7 percent in 2001.
Spam costs U.S. businesses $10 billion each year in lost productivity, Salem told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
"E-mail messaging has fundamentally changed the way we communicate," said committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. "The growing affliction of spam, however, may threaten all of this."
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, in a letter to the committee released at the hearing, said he wants federal legislation to combat spam and independent, international organizations to push for improved industry practices.
"These authorities could provide mechanisms to identify legitimate e-mail, making it easier for consumers and businesses to distinguish wanted mail from unwanted mail," Gates said.
Congress has in the past been reluctant to crack down on spam, in part because of lobbying from retailers, marketing firms and other who use such e-mail for their businesses. But with the problem worsening, lawmakers appear more likely to pass something this year.
A bill proposed by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would ban deceptive subject lines, require valid return addresses and order spammers to obey consumer requests to stop sending them e-mail.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who wants a national "do-not-spam" registry that consumers could join, proposed an international treaty to fight spam.
"As soon as we tighten up our laws here and institute vigorous enforcement, those who want to violate our laws move abroad," Schumer said. "A global agreement will ensure that anti-spam standards protecting American computers are enforceable both here and abroad."
Gates said a federal spam law should allow legitimate marketers to be certified by the government. Others should be required to attach labels to their e-mail identifying them as unsolicited so an Internet user could delete them without opening them.
Microsoft, America Online and Yahoo announced a joint initiative last month to combat spam through such techniques as identifying and restricting messages with deceptive headers.
Ronald Scelson, owner of Scelson Online Marketing, a Slidell, La.-based company that sends up to 180 million commercial e-mails each day, said he welcomes a national law as long as law-abiding companies aren't hurt by it.
"My company is doing no different than any other advertising company who uses the postal service to send out unsolicited bulk mail to your home," he said. "If you don't want it, just check 'delete.'"
The Federal Trade Commission has seen a huge increase in complaints from consumers. In 2001, the FTC received 10,000 junk e-mails each day forwarded by angry consumers. The agency now receives 130,000 messages daily.
FTC commissioner Orson Swindle said industry could solve most of the spam problem but has not done enough to give consumers the tools to control the e-mail they receive.
"The private sector must lead the way," Swindle said. "Because of the speed of this industry, legislation is always going to fall behind."
AOL Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis said Congress should follow the lead of Virginia, which enacted the nation's harshest anti-spam law last month. It gives authorities the power to seize assets earned from sending bulk unsolicited e-mail pitches while imposing up to five years in prison for the responsible party.
Scelson was skeptical about AOL's opposition to spam.
"The same people that are here today complaining about mail send mail," he said. "Why? Because it's profitable."