FTC: Progress Being Made on Spam

Dec 21, 2005 3:07 AM  By

Despite some troubling developments in e-mail since the Can-Spam Act of 2003 went into effect two years ago, the often-derided federal law has resulted in marketers adopting more best practices and helped law enforcement go after spammers, the Federal Trade Commission said in a report to Congress released Tuesday.

“We’re not saying the spam problem is solved,” Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said during a press conference announcing the report. “What we’re saying is we’re making progress.”

For example, before Can-Spam went into effect, 66% of opt-out links in commercial e-mail didn’t work, said Parnes. A recent FTC study of online retailers determined that 89% of them honored opt-out request, she said.

The 116-page report, “The Effectiveness and Enforcement of the Can-Spam Act,” is the FTC’s first assessment of the law since it went into effect two years ago.

Parnes also announced a series of new law enforcement actions taken by the FTC, state attorneys general, and Canadian officials against alleged spammers. The FTC targeted three operations, the Canadian Competition Bureau settled two cases, and the attorneys general of Florida, North Carolina, and Texas filed complaints seeking to block the illegal spamming of three more operations, the FTC said.

According to the FTC, it has brought 21 cases under Can-Spam so far. The FTC’s report said that since the Can-Spam Act went into effect in January 2004, “the volume of spam sent over the Internet has begun to level off, and, even more significantly, the amount reaching consumers’ inboxes has decreased due to enhanced anti-spam technologies.”

When asked to estimate how effective Can-Spam has been compared to technological advances, Parnes said, “I think it’s very difficult to parse out the effect of the law on spam vs. technological advances. What I can tell you is that the law set out some best practices and most legitimate companies are complying with those requirements.”

The FTC report also noted some troubling developments, however: “[T]here has been a shift toward the inclusion in spam messages of content that is increasingly malicious. Rather than merely advertise products and services, spam messages now sometimes include ‘malware’ designed to harm the recipient.” Indeed, according to Internet security firm Sophos, there was a 48% increase in “malware” threats from 2004 to 2005.

The FTC also said that spammers also increasingly seek to frustrate law enforcement by using increasingly confusing multilayered business arrangements and providing domain name registrars with false information.

While the FTC recommended no changes be made to the Can-Spam Act, it urged Congress to pass the so-called US Safe Web Act, which the FTC claims would significantly improve its ability to trace spammers. It also called for increased education efforts to let consumers know about ways they can protect themselves and their children from unwanted pornography, and it urged continued improvement in antispam technology.

The FTC also vowed to spur industry efforts to implement e-mail authentication and accreditation systems.

When Can-Spam went into effect two years ago, critics said that since it contained no provision giving individuals the right to sue, it would be toothless. Critics also claimed that since the Can-Spam Act doesn’t require marketers to get explicit permission before sending e-mail to individuals, it would result in millions of new unwanted messages from so-called mainstream companies. According to the FTC, this has not happened.

“There has been a significant decrease in the number of spam messages containing sexually explicit material,” said an executive summary of the report. “And, legitimate online marketers have complied with the act in large numbers.”

The FTC said it reached its conclusions by interviewing consumer group representatives, Internet service providers, technologists and law enforcement representatives.