Is CAN-SPAM Effective? FTC Says Yes

In its report to Congress on the effectiveness of the CAN-SPAM Act, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls the two-year-old law a crucial weapon in the war on spam. However, officials also said the most important anti-spam advances going forward will be technological in nature.

FTC officials outlined the report’s findings during a press conference in which they also detailed a new enforcement initiative it has undertaken with Canada and several southern states.

The report details each of the Act’s provisions and lists criminal prosecutions that have resulted from each — 20 in all. Given the vast scale of spam, that appears to confirm some marketers’ assertions that CAN-SPAM has done little to directly reduce the amount of spam, serving more as a guide for legitimate businesses than as a deterrent for illegitimate ones.

But Lydia Parnes, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, hailed the law as a success — not only as a standard for e-mail best practices, but also as a guide for ISPs and inbox providers who wish to pursue spammers.

“One of the interesting things that has happened, in part due to the legislation, is that industry has responded to the issue, not only to law enforcement but also to technological advances,” she said.

“We’re not here saying the spam problem is solved. We’re saying that we’re making progress. It’s an incremental process. We never thought the CAN-SPAM Act alone was the solution to the problem.”

Jordan Cohen, director of ISP and government relations for Epsilon Interactive and a contributor to the report, agreed that the law has facilitated the development of technologies that stop spam and has ennobled ISPs. “I do think enforcement has been happening and they’ve touted that quite effectively in this report,” Cohen told ClickZ. “While we would like to see more funding, the fact remains that… everybody who has been empowered to take action under this Act has been able to do so more than before it existed.”

The report outlines several steps that will improve CAN-SPAM’s effectiveness going forward. They include the adoption of domain-level authentication technologies that will prevent anonymous spamming, and the passage of the US SAFE WEB Act by Congress.

Among other things, US SAFE WEB (“Undertaking Spam, Spyware, And Fraud Enforcement With Enforcers Beyond Borders Act of 2005”) would assist in the prosecution of spammers outside the U.S. by facilitating information exchange between the FTC and its overseas counterparts, among other things. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved and submitted the bill to the full Senate last week.

“The FTC is right now limited in the amount of information they can share with foreign governments,” said Epsilon’s Cohen. “As a result, foreign governments are limited in the amount of information they can share. The legislation would free up the FTC [to share information].”

The Commission also shared details today of a new CAN-SPAM enforcement initiative it has undertaken in conjunction with Canadian officials and several southern states. Under “Operation Button Pushers,” the U.S. is targeting three spam operations, and Canada has settled with two more. Meanwhile, Florida, North Carolina and Texas filed spamming complaints against three others.

For all its detail, the FTC’s 116-page report declined to speculate on what many marketers and consumers would most like to hear: an estimate of the quantitative impact of the controversial, two-year-old law.

The authors concluded, “The Commission does not believe that CAN-SPAM’s effectiveness can be determined by measuring changes in the amount or types of spam since the Act’s passage, because numerous variables, such as changes in anti-spam technologies and spammers’ tactics, are predominantly responsible for such changes.”

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