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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee lined up the usual suspects for its Wednesday hearing on possible spam legislation. There was Ted Leonsis of America Online, Brightmail's Enrique Salem and Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), all urging immediate federal laws to curb the onslaught of unsolicited bulk e-mail.
Not so usual, though, was self-confessed mass spammer Ronald Scelson, who said he also supported national legislation. It would, he claimed, make his operation, Scelson Online Marketing, legal.
Scelson said until six months ago, his bulk mailings for insurance, mortgages, vacations and automobiles contained valid return addresses, opt-out provisions and was clearly labeled as advertising. Since then, he said, "bullying" tactics by anti-spam groups have forced him to mask his e-mail identity and engage in the usual deceptive mailing practices of mass mailers to disguise their tracks.
When Salem, Brightmail's president and CEO, proudly touted the effectiveness of his anti-spam company's latest spam filter, Scelson promptly replied it had taken him only 24 hours to figure a way around it. For good measure, he added, Scelson sent the formula for free to 300 other mass e-mailers.
"I could have kept it to myself and made a lot more money," Scelson said. "But, then Brightmail would have figured it out and blocked my e-mail. With 300 of us, good luck."
Scelson said he currently has 22 clients and sends out as many as 18 million e-mails a day, but never more than one e-mail per person, per day to his massive mailing list. He claims he obtained all his addresses legally, adding that AOL gladly sold him the company's entire customer directory. Given the opportunity to deny that, Leonsis, vice chairman of AOL, did not.
"I agree with having laws governing bulk e-mails," Scelson, who said he does not send adult material in his operation, told the panel. "But carriers should be held accountable when they submit to anti-spam groups. Terminating services to companies' such as my own without any legal reason to do so is not the democracy that we should all be living."
Scelson said when he mails "100 percent legal" he encounters two problems, "The carrier, not the individual, filters ADV, then none of my mail will get in and I will go out of business." Or, he said, "If I identify myself and not forge anything, the ISP will terminate my circuit for mailing legal and put me out of business."
Without a provision in a national law that would require carriers and ISPs to pass on to consumers commercial e-mail that met certain standards, Scelson said the industry would move offshore and beyond the government's reach.
"Now the individual has lost his right to get any e-mail he wants," Scelson said. "The carriers have determined that they would screen all incoming mail and only allow e-mail the carrier wants the end user to receive, but not limiting themselves to their own advertising, that still to this day does not get screened."
Scelson also accused AOL of running its own "spam company," since it sends unsolicited e-mails to its customers touting various products. Leonsis countered that AOL users have the right to opt-out of the mailings.
Scelson's comments were the boldest to date by the spamming community, but his remarks underscored the private concerns of many legitimate advertisers regarding federal spam laws, who fear being lumped in with mass e-mailers specializing in pornography and online scams.
While Wednesday's hearing covered much the same ground as recent Federal Trade Commission's spam forum, two new proposals did emerge. Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) said he will call for an international treaty on e-mail issues.
"Spam is truly an international issue because the Internet itself is a global resource," Schumer said. "The simple fact of the mater is that so many of the problems that have come about in the digital age are inherently global and spam is no exception."
Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and Chief Software Architect, submitted a letter to the committee saying, "Microsoft firmly believes that spam can be dramatically reduced and that the solution rests squarely on the shoulders of industry and government."
Gates proposed federal legislation to create incentives for e-mail marketers to adopt best practices and a certification system to identify "trusted senders." Properly certified marketers would be "entitled to avoid the burden" of additional labeling requirements, such as ADV.