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New law regulates unsolicited commercial e-mail

August 28, 2000
By: Suzanne Bessette
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -

Lots of people hate spam. But even those who are willing to eat the canned lunchmeat are not likely to enjoy reading it.

Unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE), also known as spam, plagues many e-mailers. A new Missouri law went into effect Monday, restricting UCE's and giving a new weapon to consumers.

Under the new law, recipients of UCEs may sue the sender if the sender does not indicate a return address or an 800 number the recipient can call to request removal from the sending list. Those who sue successfully are entitled to $500 in damages from the sender.

Unregulated mass e-mails have become a hot topic recently because many of these messages contain or refer to sexually explicit material. "That's what makes it a hot-button issue," said David Sorkin, Professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

But for the internet industry, more important than what these e-mails contain is how much money they cost consumers. "If someone throws a rock through your window with a note attached, it doesn't so much matter what the note says. You still have to pay for that window," Sorkin said.

"Your fee would be lower if it weren't for spam," said Tom Geller, founder and administrator of suespammers.com. That's because the amount of money spent to send out mass messages is born by internet service providers, and, in turn, by the consumers who pay for those services.

Though Missouri's new law is considered good news for consumers, suing a UCE sender will not be simple.

First, in order to file suit, the recipient must know who sent the e-mail. Oftentimes, spam senders deliberately hide their identity. There are sites on the internet (such as spamcop.net) that can help a recipient identify the sender.

Lawsuits can also run up against state constitutions. Court cases in California and Washington are now under appeal because the sender claims that state law cannot cover this type of interstate commerce. Whether or not Missouri's law is susceptible to this argument remains to be seen.

Due to these difficulties, those who study or advocate for anti-spam laws are skeptical about the efficiency of state laws. "State laws are appearing more and more unworkable," Geller said.

While the immediate effect on consumers and UCE senders is dubious, state laws are vital as testing grounds for this uncharted field of law. Missouri is the 18th state to pass a law regulating UCE's, pending federal regulation.