WASHINGTON -- Three major consumer groups are calling for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to define the common tactics of bulk spammers as unfair and deceptive trade practices as part of a campaign against "an increasingly out-of-control epidemic" of unsolicited e-mail.
Unlike previous efforts which have focused on fraudulent products or services offered through e-mail, the consumer groups now want the actual form and structure of unsolicited commercial e-mail to be subject to FTC regulations.
In a formal petition to the FTC, the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), the National Consumers League (NCL) and Consumer Action (CA) urge the agency to adopt a rule that defines spam as "deceptive and therefore unlawful" if it either misrepresents the sender (in source or routing information), misrepresents the subject or content of the e-mail, or fails to provide reliable contact information about the sender.
In addition, the groups want bulk e-mailers subject to sanctions if the e-mail fails to provide a reliable opt-out system or is sent to an individual who has opted out or resigned from the sender's list or to whom sending unsolicited, commercial e-mail is otherwise prohibited by law.
"Americans are drowning in commercial spam e-mail today and this situation is only going to get worse unless strong action is taken now," said TRAC Chairman Samuel A. Simon. "This could be done in a matter of months if they (the FTC) want to. Our proposal sets the terms and conditions of how people can market their product through e-mail."
Simon added in a Wednesday morning press conference that he thinks the FTC has "done a good job in a narrow way," but they have not defined the problem as spam, per se.
"The medium itself is inherently deceptive," Simon said, who cited a recent study estimating unsolicited bulk e-mails currently comprise 36 percent of all e-mail traveling over the Internet, up sharply from 8 percent just one year ago.
Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, said the proposed rules would "put up a warning sign for marketers."
The three non-profit consumer groups also announced the related launch of a non-profit Web site, banthespam.com , designed to give consumers by the ability to express their "anger and frustration about abusive spam e-mail." The site allows consumers can let the FTC know of their support for the anti-spam e-mail petition by reporting spam "horror stories." The Web site provides the text of the petition that the three groups have filed with the FTC.
"I worry more and more with each passing month that the explosion in spam e-mail is going to cause consumers to turn their backs on the enormous consumer education power of the Web," said McEldowney. "We already hear stories about the burden of junk e-mail threatening to drive consumers off of e-mail altogether. It is time for Americans to say that enough is enough."
The FTC responded to the proposals with an official statement from J. Howard Beales, III, director of the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection, that said "The FTC is concerned about the proliferation of spam affecting consumers and we look forward to reviewing the petition. In every spam proposal we have seen, vigorous law enforcement is key. We have brought numerous cases against deceptive and misleading spam practices, and that's exactly what we will continue to do."