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Will Anti Spam Bill Erode First Amendment Rights?

StoryNovember 25, 2003
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The response to legislation aiming to limit the sending of unsolicited email has been mixed. While some praise the bill, critics charge it may actually encourage more spam while others say it could change the future of all email, not just spam. We speak the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. [Includes transcript]

Congress is on the verge if approving a new bill that aims to limit the sending of unsolicited email known as spam. On Saturday the House vote 392 to 5 for the "Can Spam Act of 2003." The Senate approved a similar measure last month.

The response to the legislation has been mixed in the tech world. America Online and Microsoft have praised the legislation. Anti-spam groups charge it may encourage more spam. And other critics say it could change the future of all email, not just spam.


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The response to the legislation has been mixed in the tech world. America Online and Microsoft have praised the legislation. Anti-spam groups charge it may encourage more spam, and other critics say it could change the future of all email, not just spam.
John Gilmore, what is your position, Electronic Frontier Foundation?

JOHN GILMORE: Hello. My position is that this 55-page bill reaches far more broadly than spam. It attempts to regulate any form of email that is sent by a commercial business to anyone, whether it’s to another business or to private parties.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further.

JOHN GILMORE: Well, for example, I have a friend who is — well, the bill is not restricted to spam. It’s not restricted to people who send large amounts of email. Almost all of its provisions apply to people who send individual single email messages. So, for example, I have a friend who is a photographer, professional photographer. She works for national magazines and things like that. If she sends a message to a magazine saying, hey, I’d like to do a project for you about firefighters or something like this — that’s a solicitation for a commercial transaction. This bill applies to that single email message that she types in on her computer and sends to one person. And it says she is a criminal if she doesn’t put her postal address in it, for example, or if it gets sent from her laptop and it has — doesn’t specify that it came from her laptop, it gives the same email address she uses on her desktop. There’s all of these little nitpicking provisions that say if your message doesn’t say how to unsubscribe from her single message, then she is violating the law.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about political activism, using email for political organizing?

JOHN GILMORE: Well, it’s an interesting question. The bill doesn’t ever specifically either include or exempt political or charitable or religious activities. So, the question is whatever you send is going to be second-guessed by either a federal agency, a court, or an internet service provider, and they will decide whether or not to try to prosecute you based on whether they decide that — if you sent the solicitation that said please vote against this measure you know, call your Congressman and tell them to — or even better, like the things that I get from Move On all the time — please send us whatever you can spare so we can take out ads against the war in Iraq, right? Clearly a solicitation of a commercial nature. The bill applies to those email messages.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you opposed to this bill?

JOHN GILMORE: I’m opposed to this bill. I think it reaches far too broadly. You know, if the bill limited itself to penis-enlargement ads, that would be one thing, but the bill does not. It reaches into the heart of First Amendment-based communication, and it never mentions the First Amendment once.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Gilmore, I want to thank you for joining us. John Gilmore is with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Co-founder. You are listening to Democracy Now!.

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