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Tough To Prove Can-Spam's Impact, FTC Admits

It's nearly the second anniversary of the federal Can-Spam Act, and the Federal Trade Commission acknowledges that it can't prove the legislation has had any effect on junk mail volume.

As the federal CAN-SPAM Act nears its second anniversary, the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday reported several new lawsuits to shut down spammers but acknowledged that it can't prove the legislation has had any effect on junk mail volume.

CAN-SPAM, which went into effect in January 2004, is a good news-bad news story, said Lydia Panes, the director of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) bureau of consumer protection.

"We’re offering both good news and cautionary notes," Panes said in a press conference Tuesday as she announced a joint U.S. and Canadian sweep of spammers. Also on Tuesday, the agency released a report that assessed the effectiveness of CAN-SPAM; earlier this month, the FTC had submitted the report to Congress.

"Less spam is getting through to our inboxes, but what is is more malicious," Panes added. "But commercial and personal use of e-mail has continued to grow, contrary to fears before CAN-SPAM. Nearly all legitimate marketers are following [CAN-SPAM's] requirements, and there has been a significant decrease in the amount of sexual explicit spam."

But it's impossible to separate CAN-SPAM's impact from that of other practices, specifically a boost in the use of anti-spam technology. "It's difficult to parse out the effect of the law versus technology's impact on the amount of spam," Panes said.

Instead, Panes touted the fact that most legitimate online marketers have complied with the law -- 89 percent by the FTC's latest data -- and that the law provides the means to shut down and sue spammers.

Experts agree that spam seems to have leveled off or even declined, but Scott Chasin, the chief technology officer of MX Logic, argues that CAN-SPAM had nothing to do with the trend.

"Kudos should go the advances in anti-spam technology, not to legislation," said Chasin, referring to such things as more sophisticated filters and a wider adoption of anti-spam software by users, companies, and Internet service providers.

According to MX Logic, which has tracked compliance with CAN-SPAM since the law's enactment, just 4 percent of all spam toes the line. While that's up from an average of 3 percent in 2004, it's still a drop in the bucket.

"CAN-SPAM is a good first step," added Chasin as he dodged a question about whether the law was a complete failure. "It's a necessity, if only because it's had some deterrent impact on low-hanging spammers. But the advances in technology would have come without the assistance of CAN-SPAM."

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