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Lose weight, grow hair, can spam

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is the first to admit it. "The odds of us defeating spam by legislation alone are extremely low," he said, as the Senate unanimously passed a bill aimed at controlling the flood of unsolicited e-mail. But, McCain adds, "that does not mean we should stand idly by and do nothing about it."

The CAN-SPAM Act (short for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) is the first effort to emerge through either chamber of Congress, and it is modest in its reach. It doesn't ban spam, but requires e-mail senders to identify themselves, label commercial advertising and allow recipients to opt out. It goes after spammers by punishing their most devious methods (such as cryptically routing e-mail through unknowing computers or jamming companies with thousands of made-up name addresses) with fines or imprisonment.

The Direct Marketing Association supports the Senate bill for reasons that probably owe more to its restriction on individual lawsuits and its pre-emption of any state laws that are more onerous. But the marketing association does serve a useful purpose in the political debate: There is a fair distinction to be made between businesses that seek to market their wares and spammers that spin out millions of fraudulent or obscene e-mails. One is a nuisance, the other a scam.

U.S. companies are now spending roughly $10-billion a year to deal with unwanted spam, and computer users are so fed up that a new Pew Internet Project survey found one in four have cut back on e-mail use altogether. Yet, at the same time, a DMA survey reports that one in 11 e-mail users bought something last year as a result of an unsolicited e-mail.

That begins to explain why blocking spam is so problematic. Any effort, whether government-led or technology-driven, to restrict the flow of e-mail is almost certain to restrict legitimate communication in the process. So Congress, private business and consumers need a solution that respects those boundaries yet is still technologically workable.

The do-not-e-mail provision in the Senate bill, for example, is modeled after the popular do-not-call telephone marketing list now being enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and appropriately vests the censorship authority in the consumer. Yet e-mail technology is so markedly different from telecommunications that such a list may not be enforceable or practical.

Congress has a role to play in stemming the costly flow of junk e-mail, but McCain's admonition is a worthy one. The Internet is a global technology, and spammers are not easily cowed by any nation's laws. At some point, the market will have to establish its own boundaries.