FTC Announces that Spam is Annoying

(July 15, 1998)  FTC officials held a press conference in Washington DC on Tuesday to announce that unsolicited commercial e-mail, or "spam", is a problem.   "It’s annoying, it slows down the e-mail system, and a lot of it is fraudulent" said Jodie Bernstein, Chief of the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Protection Bureau.

Also present at the event were representatives of industry, trade groups, consumers groups, and civil rights groups, who hold divergent viewpoints on what to do about spam.   The Center for Democracy also released a Report to the FTC on unsolicited commercial e-mail.   The FTC offered no legislative recommendations.

250,000 Complaints and 5 Suits

The FTC officials explained what the FTC is doing about spam.  First, it released at its press conference a list of the spam scams most likely to show up in consumers' mailboxes.  It has also put information about scams in its website.   Jodie Bernstein said that "the most important thing we can do is warn consumers about the frauds that are lurking out there."

Second, complaining individuals have forwarded to the FTC about 250,000 copies of objectionable spam.  The FTC has databased and studied these e-mails.  Third, it has sent letters to about 1,000 spammers and asked them to stop what they are doing.  Fourth, the FTC has brought suit against five spammers for fraudulent practices.  "We think we had quite good results," said Bernstein.

The FTC and its officials have been active in issuing statements, testifying to Congressional committees, holding press conferences, forming alliances with interest groups and trade organizations.  It has been vocal not only on spamming issues, but also on Internet fraud and privacy issues.

FTC Limitations

The FTC is an ancient regulatory agency searching for new missions in a era of deregulation and free markets.  It sees the Internet as a new area over which to expand its regulatory authority.

Presently, the FTC can do little now about spam, beyond holding denunciatory press conferences.  It can prosecute spammers for fraud on consumers, if they commit fraud.   It cannot prosecute solely on the basis of being annoying or burdensome.

Even if the FTC were to regulate spam, its effectiveness would be limited.  First, it is a consumer protection agency.  While consumers are harmed by spam, so are ISPs, whose networks are clogged with spam, and businesses, whose reputations are damaged by spammers who forge their email addresses.  Prosecuting for fraud on consumers would only address part of the problem.

Jill Lesser, of America Online, spoke at the press conference.  While "unsolicited email ... is our number one consumer complaint," said Lesser, "we are most worried about fraud on the system."   Fraudulent headers and return addresses "is what hampers the growth of Internet."

The FTC is also limited by being a U.S. agency, while the Internet is global.    According to IBM's Roger Cochetti, who spoke briefly at the press conference, "simple solutions don't exist" because it is easy "for spammers to go offshore."  He also stated that we "must proceed with some caution because of the multinational nature of the problem."  Foreign governments do not always understand or share our concerns about spam, he said.

Center for Democracy and Technology Report

The CDT released a 36 page report that was written primarily by Deirdre Mulligan, but based on meetings and consultation with corporations, trade groups, civil rights groups, consumer groups, and other interested parties.

The Report recommends public policies that "prohibit the use of fraudulent headers."  The Report recommends that "the use of inaccurate and misleading header information be considered an attempt to defraud consumers."  The Report also urges the FTC, DOJ, and relevant state offices "to undertake enforcement actions targeting these practices and to clarify their jurisdiction through test cases and other appropriate methods."

The Report also outlines the impact of unsolicited commercial e-mail on users and network operators, surveys the legal and technical tools available to address unsolicited commercial e-mail, and reviews legislative, technical, and self-regulation proposals.

No one from the FTC commented on the content of the CDT Report.


"Unsolicited commercial e-mail is ... not a problem that is subject to easy solutions," concluded Roger Cochetti. "There is no simple way that this problem is going to be solved."

Similarly, Jill Lesser said that "we have not found a silver bullet legislative solution."