In December 2003, with a great deal of fanfare, Congress passed the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act, which is far better known by its acronym, the CAN-SPAM Act.
Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Ron Wyden (D-Or.) said at the time of its passage that the CAN-SPAM legislation would not be a silver bullet.
"But when this bill takes effect," he said, "the big-time spammers who up to this point faced no consequences, for all practical purposes, will suddenly be at risk for criminal prosecution, Federal Trade Commission enforcement, and million-dollar lawsuits by State attorneys general and Internet service providers."
The intervening four years have shown mixed results for Senator Wyden's prediction.
According to a new survey released Wednesday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, more e-mail users today report an increase in spam (37 percent) than did so in February 2004 (24 percent), which is just after the CAN-SPAM Act went into effect.
On the other hand, over the same time period, there has been a significant drop in the number of people (52 percent, down from 71) who report receiving pornographic spam, which was obviously one of the main legislative targets of the CAN-SPAM Act.
The author of the Pew study, Deborah Fallows, said in an e-mail interview that she felt that the CAN-SPAM Act has had a positive effect on the spam problem. "The CAN-SPAM Act has gone a long way toward giving teeth to legal efforts," she said. "The law makes it riskier to be a spammer."
Better Spam Filters
Mark Rotenberg, the Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that in his view, the results of the Pew survey show that antispam filters have improved over the last few years. "It is much less likely that offensive text messages will make it through filters today than in the past," Rotenberg said.
Fallows agreed. "Spam filters go a long way toward keeping spam out of inboxes," she said. "But everyone needs to use them, and they aren't perfect." As Rotenberg pointed out, for instance, many spam filters have problems identifying and blocking image-based spam.
The other point that Fallows made, both in her report and in her e-mail, is that spam will remain a problem as long as it is an economically viable advertising tool. "As long as people continue ordering products or services from spam, or responding to queries in spam for personal information," Fallows noted, "it will be worth someone's while to be a spammer."
And according to the Pew report, that's still a problem. Just under one-quarter (23 percent) of e-mail users admit having knowingly clicked on a spam message for more information, and 4 percent have contributed to the life-blood of the spam industry by ordering a product or agreeing to process Nigerian bank funds. Caveat lector -- let the reader beware.