New e-mail law has yet to have much impact

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 1:19 a.m.

LAS VEGAS - On a garish exhibition floor at Internext, the main trade show for Internet pornographers, Catherine Kouzmanoff handed out cards with a summary of the new federal law banning unwanted commercial e-mail.

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At Internext, the main trade show for Internet pornog- raphers, Catherine Kouzmanoff handed out cards with a summary of the new federal law banning unwanted commercial e-mail.

JOHN LOCHER/The New York Times

She explained to the attendees how her company's software, Robomail, can help high volume e-mailers comply with the CAN-SPAM act by inserting their postal address in the mail and by keeping track of recipients who ask to be removed from the sender's mailing list.

"What people actually do with the software,'' she conceded, "we don't know." Kouzmanoff is the chief technical officer of Inter7, which is based in Evanston, Ill. She said her company does little business with companies that send sexually explicit messages, but she exhibits at Internext because mailers of all sorts use the show to find new technology.

By many accounts, the new law, which took effect on Jan. 1, has yet to have much impact on the amount of junk e-mail, or spam, being sent. Torrents of e-mail messages with cryptic subject lines and from untraceable senders, continue to pour into in-boxes, in clear violation of the new law.

There are some marketers who have added post office box addresses to the bottom of their e-mail messages along with an option to unsubscribe from the mailer's list. But it is too soon to tell if those addresses are in fact valid, or whether requests to be taken off e-mail lists are being honored.

It is clear, however, that the law has gotten the attention of some spammers, even if it hasn't cut back their mailing yet. Attendance is down at this year's private meeting of high-volume bulk e-mailers being held in Las Vegas alongside the Internext trade show.

``A lot of mailers have backed out since they think some kind of bust is going to happen,'' said Alan Ralsky, a major bulk e-mailer who is one of the organizers of the meeting. Ralsky, who is based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., has said he will comply with the new law.

No arrests have been made at the meeting. And law enforcement officials say that civil or criminal charges based on violations of the new law will not appear for some time.

``You will not see new cases this week,'' said Stephen Kline, the assistant attorney general of New York state responsible for Internet crime. ``These cases still take time to build.''

The principal authors of the new law - Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. - wrote to Timothy Muris, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, asking that cases be brought against spam kingpins this week.

But officials at the commission say that bringing actions that quickly is nearly impossible. After all, those who violate the law do so by hiding their identities, and it takes time and skilled computer detective work to track them down and build a case.

Kouzmanoff said users of her company's software are nonetheless

preparing for their day in court.

``I tell people that just like you have a budget for marketing and for your lease payments,'' she said, ``you now need to have a budget for legal bills.'' Kouzmanoff added that she believes that prosecutors have been too heavy handed in their recent cases against mailers.

Still, evidence in the e-mail stream suggests violations of the new law are rampant.

Postini, a company that filters e-mail for corporations, says that 84 percent of the messages it has seen since Jan. 1 are spam, up from 80 percent in mid-December. But Andrew Lochart, the company's director of product marketing, said the increase is mainly the result of a slowdown in legitimate message traffic over the holiday period.

Postini's analysis shows that very few messages carry the required postal address and other information, and those that do appear to be from mainstream marketers.

``The volume of e-mail the legit senders send is dwarfed by the junk coming from the bottom feeders who hide their identity and who, for the most part, know how to make themselves untraceable,'' Lochart said.

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