States Mull 'Do Not Spam' Lists

Parents who don't want their children to receive inappropriate advertisements on their computers or cell phones will get some relief this summer-- if they live in Michigan or Utah.

Both states in July will launch statewide registries that put kids on "Do not spam" lists and that place the states on the cutting edge of government efforts to block unwanted e-mails. The idea builds on the state of Washington's first-in-the-nation e-mail registry set up to block deceptive spam for computer users of all ages.

Utah's law will let parents register children in an anti-spam database and will prohibit sending ads to kids' e-mail addresses, instant messenger IDs and mobile phone numbers for products they legally can't buy such as pornography, liquor and tobacco. Michigan enacted a nearly identical statute.

An Illinois proposal would create a third children's registry, but its sponsor said the bill is unlikely to advance this year until penalties for violators are retooled based on suggestions from the state attorney general. Illinois state Rep. Jack Franks (D) said his bill would impose stiff financial penalties to address fears that spammers might misuse a database of kids' e-mail addresses, instant message identities, postal addresses and phone numbers.

The states' no-spam registries are modeled on the federal Do Not Call Registry, a list of 85.8 million telephone numbers intended to end unwanted telemarketing calls. Do-not-call lists in half the states were forerunners to the federal list started in 2003.

But the Federal Trade Commission concluded last year a national no-spam list was unfeasible and left open the door for states to create their own registries.

Under the state of Washington's 1998 anti-spam law, spammers still may contact e-mail users on the state registry if the messages don't use false identifying information, a third party's e-mail address or misleading advertising. While the law doesn't block unwanted messages, it does provide a basis for prosecuting spammers for deceptive messages.

Lawmakers in South Carolina and New York are considering going beyond Washington's model by starting a statewide registry of computer users who don't want any kind of unsolicited e-mail. New York's bill would require the state to create a registry of citizens who don't want spam, while South Carolina's would require e-mail service providers to create a similar database.

Consumer groups are mixed about whether state do-not-spam lists can overcome security concerns. The FTC said that a national no-spam registry would be a goldmine for criminal spammers who would misuse it by confirming valid e-mail addresses.

Kenneth DeGraff, senior policy adviser for the Consumers Union, a nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine, contends a registry provides a ready-made "spam-me list" of addresses that otherwise wouldn't be known, unlike do-not-call lists of phone numbers that already are public in phone books or that could be reached through random dialing.

Susan Grant, vice president of public policy for the National Consumers League, a nonprofit advocacy group, said her group supports state-level no-spam registries -- even if they are no silver bullet -- and thinks they would be as secure as the federal no-call list.

Besides requiring the FTC to study the feasibility of a national no-spam list, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 banned deceptive subject lines and required email to give recipients an opt-out method. This year 24 states are considering dozens of anti-spam measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which maintains a list of the bills.

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