Exactly Whose Side Are They On?

Over on Politech, Declan McCullagh has a press release on Big Internet’s ambivalent relationship with spam.

It appears that Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo teamed up to block a California anti-spam law, according to a press release from the office of the bill’s author, CA Senator Debra Bowen:

Backed by Microsoft, America Online (AOL) and Yahoo!, the Assembly Business & Professions Committee today refused to permit a vote on SB 12 by California State Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach), a bill that sought to create the country’s toughest anti-spam law by requiring advertisers to get permission from computer users before sending them unsolicited ads.


Today in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft announced it filed 13 civil suits against U.S. spammers for sending unwanted, deceptive, commercial e-mail to Microsoft customers. Meanwhile, at that same time, Microsoft was testifying in Sacramento, California, before the Assembly Business & Professions Committee against Senator Bowen’s bill, that would have banned spam and created an “opt-in” system for sending unsolicited commercial e-mail. If enacted, it would be the strongest anti-spam bill in the country, but Microsoft opposed it because it would have required businesses to get permission before sending e-mail ads (a concept known as “opt-in”) and would have allowed individual e-mail spam victims to sue spammers for $500 per spam.

“Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo! sit in committee with a straight face, saying they’re trying to improve the bill, while at the same time they’re back in Washington, pushing measures to wipe out this bill and every single anti-spam law that states have adopted over the past half-dozen years,” continued Bowen. “Why? Because they don’t want to ban spam, they want to license it and make money from spammers by deciding what’s ‘legitimate’ or ‘acceptable’ unsolicited commercial advertising, then charging those advertisers a fee to wheel their spam into your e-mail inbox without your permission.”

Bowen is a pretty damn trustworthy legislator, who has historically been on the right side of privacy issues.

(edited to correct missed word in Bowen’s description)

5 thoughts on “Exactly Whose Side Are They On?”

  1. Why am I not surprised? If Bill Gates is involved you know it’s questionable. Of course he’s so rich now it will be almost impossible to stop him doing what ever it is he’s inclined to do.
    I think he’s also making money hand over fist off of viruses too.
    Redmond is not to ever be trusted.

  2. It’s also possible that they’re opposing the bill because it exposes them to a huge amount of liability. With as many millions of subscribers (including free trial accounts opened specifically for the purposes of spamming) as MS and AOL have, they stand to lose a lot if the law is passed.

    “SB 12 allows any Californian who receives unsolicited ads to sue the sender and the advertiser in court for $500 per spam and the judge can triple the fine if he or she finds the
    sender willfully and knowingly violates the California ban.” (bold type mine)

    If the law is passed, how are AOL and MS going to protect themselves against lawsuits brought against them for spam sent on their servers? By going through everyone’s email accounts, and verifying that they aren’t sending spam? And how long will it be before they’re sued for violating people’s privacy by doing that?

    And I feel like I should take exception to “…pushing measures to wipe out this bill and every single anti-spam law that states have adopted over the past half-dozen years,” given that Virginia’s Anti-Spam Law was signed on the AOL campus.

    In the interest of full-disclosure, I work for America Online.

  3. Celeste –

    From the language of the bill:

    (n) “Sender” means a person or entity who initiates the transmission of a commercial e-mail advertisement or whose product, service, or Internet Web site is advertised or promoted by the message. A sender does not include a person or entity whose product, service, or Internet Web site is contained in, or accompanied by, a
    commercial e-mail advertisement initiated by a third party where the third party has not obtained authorization from the person or entity to advertise the person or entity’s product, service, or Internet Web site.

    Doesn’t sound like ISP’s would be included…


  4. I suspect that AOL and MS are doing this for a couple of reasons. Like any industrial giant they don’t want any part of their industry regulated by the government. It’s a one for all mentality. Of course they’re going to sue spammers, but they don’t want the government to do it. That just opens to door for increased regulation, and they’re walking a fine line right there.

    For another thing, they may want to send unsolicited email at some point and they wouldn’t want to close that door.

  5. A.L. –
    Thanks for the clarification. I confused myself, by looking at the original, not amended, text of the bill, which had the following definition for sender:
    (n) “Sender” means a person who initiates a commercial e-mail advertisement.

    And that was it. There wasn’t anything in it that would protect ISPs from liability for what their subscribers send out.

    Now that I’m reading the amended text of SB 12, I think it’s not that bad. I’ll have to tend to agree with Stephen, for their likely motives in opposing it.

    Now if only they could do the same thing for actual junk mail – the paper sort that fills up my mailbox and takes up massive amounts of space in my trash.

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