Regulation of Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail
CRS Report for Congress
Regulation of Unsolicited
Updated July 2, 2004
Angie A. Welborn
American Law Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Regulation of Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail
Unsolicited commercial e-mail, also known as spam, has received increased
legislative attention as consumer complaints about its intrusiveness and potential for
perpetrating fraud have grown. On December 16, 2003, the President signed the
Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM)
Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-187). This is the first federal law specifically aimed at
regulating unsolicited commercial e-mail. This report provides an overview of the
new federal law, as well as other applicable federal and state statutes, and relevant
case law applicable to the transmission of unsolicited commercial e-mail. A brief
summary of additional pending federal legislation, including S. 563, S. 1052, S.
1231, S. 1293, S. 1327, H.R. 122, H.R. 1933, H.R. 2214, and H.R. 2515, is also
provided. The report will be updated as events warrant.
CAN-SPAM Act of 2003........................................1
Prohibition on Predatory and Abusive Commercial E-Mail.........1
Other Protections for Users of Commercial E-Mail...............2
Preemption of State Law....................................3
Other Federal Laws............................................5
Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Statute.....................5
Federal Trade Commission Actions............................6
State Laws Regarding Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail................8
Legal Challenges to State Statutes.............................9
Additional Federal Legislation...................................11
Regulation of Unsolicited
CAN-SPAM Act of 2003
On December 16, 2003, the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited
Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 was signed by the President.1
This is the first federal law specifically aimed at regulating unsolicited commercial
e-mail. It became effective January 1, 2004. Each major provision of the act is
Prohibition on Predatory and Abusive Commercial E-Mail. The CAN-
SPAM Act amends Title 18 of the United States Code to add a new section entitled
“Fraud and related activity in connection with electronic mail.”2 Under this new
section it is unlawful for a person to knowingly (1) access a protected computer
without authorization, and intentionally initiate the transmission of multiple
commercial electronic mail messages from or through such computer; (2) use a
protected computer to relay or retransmit multiple commercial electronic mail
messages, with the intent to deceive or mislead recipients, or any Internet access
service, as to the origin of such messages; (3) materially falsify header information
in multiple commercial electronic mail messages and intentionally initiate the
transmission of such messages; (4) register, using information that materially falsifies
the identity of the actual registrant, for five or more electronic mail accounts or
online user accounts or two or more domain names, and intentionally initiate the
transmission of multiple commercial electronic mail messages from any combination
of such accounts or domain names; or (5) falsely represent oneself to be the registrant
or the legitimate successor in interest to the registrant of five or more Internet
Protocol addresses, and intentionally initiate the transmission of multiple commercial
electronic mail messages from such addresses.
Criminal penalties for violations range from one to five years imprisonment, a
fine, or both. A term of imprisonment of up to five years may be imposed if “(A) the
offense is committed in furtherance of any felony under the laws of the United States
or of any State; or (B) the defendant has previously been convicted under this section
or section 1030 [of Title 18], or under the law of any State for conduct involving the
transmission of multiple commercial electronic mail messages or unauthorized access
to a computer system.”3 A three year term may be imposed if the offense is an
offense under subsection (1) as noted above; an offense under subsection (4) as noted
above and involved 20 or more falsified electronic mail or online user account
1 P.L. 108-187.
2 P.L. 108-187, Sec. 4(a).
registrations, or 10 or more falsified domain name registrations; the volume of
electronic mail messages transmitted in furtherance of the offense exceeded 2,500
during any 24-hour period, 25,000 during any 30-day period, or 250,000 during any
one-year period; the offense caused loss to one or more persons aggregating $5,000
or more in value during any one-year period; as a result of the offense any individual
committing the offense obtained anything of value aggregating $5,000 or more
during any one-year period; or the offense was undertaken by the defendant in
concert with three or more other persons with respect to whom the defendant
occupied a position of organizer or leader. A term of imprisonment of up to one year
may be imposed in any other case. Persons convicted of an offense under the new
section will also be ordered to forfeit to the United States any property, real or
personal, constituting or traceable to gross proceeds obtained from the offense; and
any equipment, software, or other technology used or intended to be used to commit
or to facilitate the commission of the offense.
Other Protections for Users of Commercial E-Mail. In addition to
the new criminal provisions discussed above, the CAN-SPAM Act includes a number
of provisions aimed at protecting users of commercial e-mail.4 The act prohibits
false or misleading transmission information in commercial e-mail, and prohibits the
use of deceptive subject headings.5 Commercial electronic mail must also include
a clear and conspicuous identification that the message is an advertisement or
solicitation; clear and conspicuous notice of the opportunity to decline to receive
further commercial e-mail from the sender; and a valid physical postal address of the
The act prohibits the transmission of commercial electronic mail that does not
contain a functioning return e-mail address or other Internet-based mechanism that
a recipient may use to submit a request not to receive future commercial e-mail from7
the sender. The e-mail address or mechanism provided must be capable of receiving
messages for no less than 30 days after the transmission of the original message.
After a recipient transmits to the sender a request not to receive future commercial
electronic mail messages, it is unlawful for the sender to further transmit commercial8
e-mail to the recipient more than 10 business days after receiving such request.
For any violation of the provisions discussed above, an aggravated violation is
committed if the transmission involved electronic mail addresses that were
“harvested” using an automated means from an Internet website or proprietary online
service, or if the address of the recipient was obtained using an automated means that
4 P.L. 108-187, Sec. 5(a).
5 Id at Sec. 5(a)(1) and (2).
6 Id at Sec. 5(a)(5).
7 Id at Sec. 5(a)(3).
8 Id at Sec. 5(a)(4).
generates possible e-mail addresses by combining names, letters, or numbers into
Additionally, the act requires that messages containing sexually oriented
material include warning labels as to the content of the message.10
Enforcement. Generally, violations of the CAN-SPAM Act will be enforced
by the Federal Trade Commission as unfair or deceptive acts or practices under the11
Federal Trade Commission Act. Other agencies with jurisdiction over specific
entities will have similar enforcement authority.
State attorneys general also have authority to bring civil actions for violations12
of certain provisions in the act. Actions may be brought to recover actual monetary
damages suffered by the residents of the state or statutory damages. The state must
serve prior written notice of any action upon the Federal Trade Commission or other
appropriate agency. The FTC (or other agency with jurisdiction over the entities in
question) may intervene in the action, and upon intervention, be heard on all matters
involving the action, remove the action to the appropriate United States District
Court, and file petitions for appeal. State attorneys general may not bring a civil
action against a particular defendant if the FTC (or another agency) has instituted a
civil or administrative action against the same defendant.
Internet service providers are also allowed to bring civil actions for certain
violations to enjoin further violation, or to recover damages.13 The act does not
provide for actions by private individuals.
Preemption of State Law. Generally, the act preempts any state law that
“expressly regulates the use of electronic mail to send commercial messages.”14 State
laws that prohibit falsity or deception in any portion of a commercial e-mail
messages are not preempted. Also excluded from preemption are state laws that are
not specific to e-mail, including trespass, contract, or tort law; or other state laws that
relate to acts of fraud or computer crime.15
9 Id at Sec. 5(b)(1).
10 Id at Sec. 5(d). The Federal Trade Commission issued a Final Rule implementing this
provision on April 19, 2004. The rule requires the sender of sexually oriented e-mail
messages to include the phrase “SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT” at the beginning of the message’s
subject line. Under the new rule, the sender must also exclude any sexually oriented material
from the subject line. The new rule will be codified at 16 CFR 361.1. 69 FR 21024 (April
11 Id at Sec. 7(a). See 15 U.S.C. 57a.
12 Id at Sec. 7(f).
13 Id at Sec. 7(g).
14 Id at Sec. 8(b)(1). See infra for a discussion of state laws.
15 Id at Sec. 8(b)(2).
Do-Not-E-Mail Registry. The CAN-SPAM Act did not create a do-not-e-
mail registry similar to the Federal Trade Commission’s do-not-call registry.16
However, the act does direct the FTC to transmit to the Senate Commerce and House
Energy and Commerce Committees a report that (1) sets forth a plan and a timetable
for establishing a nationwide marketing Do-Not-E-Mail registry; (2) includes an
explanation of any practical, technical, security, privacy, enforceability, or other
concerns that the Commission has regarding such a registry; and (3) includes an
explanation of how the registry would be applied with respect to children with e-mail17
accounts. The report must be transmitted within six months of the date of
enactment of the act. The act also gives the Commission the authority to establish18
and implement the plan set forth in the report. Such implementation could take
place no earlier than nine months after the date of enactment of the act.
Acting upon Congress’ directive in the CAN-SPAM Act, the FTC released a
report entitled National Do Not Email Registry: A Report to Congress on June 15,
2004.19 In the report, the Commission concluded that “without a system in place to
authenticate the origin of e-mail messages, [a National Do Not Email Registry]
would fail to reduce the burden of spam and may even increase the amount of spam20
received by consumers.” The Commission found, based upon input from various
sources, that “spammers would most likely use a Registry as a mechanism for
verifying the validity of email addresses and, without authentication, the Commission
would be largely powerless to identify those responsible for misusing the Registry.”21
Rather than proposing a plan to implement a National Do Not Email Registry, the
Commission proposed “a program to encourage the widespread adoption of email
authentication standards that would help law enforcement and ISPs better identify
spammers.”22 If, after the development of an authentication system, spam continued
to be a problem, and if technological developments eliminated the security and
privacy risks associated with a Registry, the Commission stated that it would23
consider proposing the creation of a National Do Not Email Registry.
Other Provisions. The act directs the FTC to submit three additional reports.
The first, to be submitted to the Senate Commerce and House Energy and Commerce
Committees within nine months after the date of enactment, must set forth a system
for rewarding those who supply information about violations of the act, including
procedures for the Commission to grant rewards to the first person that identifies a
16 For more information on the national do-not-call registry, see CRS Report RL31642,
Regulation of the Telemarketing Industry: State and National Do-Not-Call Registries.
17 Id at Sec. 9(a).
18 Id at Sec. 9(b).
19 A copy of the report can be found at [http://www.ftc.gov/reports/dneregistry/report.pdf].
20 Federal Trade Commission, National Do Not Email Registry: A Report to Congress, p.
i (June 15, 2004).
22 Id at ii.
violator and supplies information that leads to the successful collection of a civil
penalty by the Commission.24 The report must also include procedures to minimize
the burden of submitting a complaint to the Commission concerning violations of the
act, including procedures to allow for electronic submission. A second report, to be
submitted within 18 months after the date of enactment of the act, must set forth a
plan for requiring commercial e-mail to be “identifiable from its subject line, by
means of compliance with Internet Engineering Task Force Standards, the use of the
characters ‘ADV’ in the subject line, or other comparable identifier, or an
explanation of any concerns the Commission has that cause the Commission to
recommend against the plan.”25 The final report, to be submitted no later than 24
months after the date of enactment, shall provide “a detailed analysis of the
effectiveness and enforcement of the provisions of the act and the need (if any) for
the Congress to modify such provisions.”26
The act also directs the Federal Communications Commission to promulgate
regulations, within 270 days of the enactment of the act, to protect consumers from
unwanted mobile service commercial messages.27
Other Federal Laws
Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Statute. The federal computer
fraud and abuse statute protects computers in which there is a federal interest, but it
does not specifically address the transmission of unsolicited commercial e-mail.28
The statute generally shields protected computers from trespassing, threats, damage,
espionage, and from being corruptly used as instruments of fraud. These provisions
have been applied to the overloading of computer servers with large amounts of
unsolicited e-mail, server damage resulting from the transmission of large amounts
of unsolicited e-mail, and may apply to alleged interference with protected computers
through the installation of “cookies”29 and “web bugs” or invisible GIF’s.30
24 Id at Sec. 11(1).
25 Id at Sec. 11(2).
26 Id at Sec. 10(a).
27 Id at Sec. 14(b). For more information, see CRS Report RL31636, Wireless Privacy:
Availability of Location Information for Telemarketing.
28 18 U.S.C. 1030. See CRS Report RS20830, Computer Fraud and Abuse: A Sketch of 18
U.S.C. 1030 and Related Federal Criminal Laws and CRS Report 97-1025, Computer Fraud
and Abuse: An Overview of 18 U.S.C. 1030 and Related Federal Criminal Laws.
29 A “cookie” is a small file stored on the computer of a person who accesses certain
websites. When a person returns to that site, the cookie enables the site to identify the
person accessing the site and may permit personalization of the site’s content.
30 A “web bug” or invisible GIF is a small computer program that may be installed when an
e-mail message is opened. These programs call for downloading a small picture or
transparent box from an outside server. Sending the requested file allows the server to
acquire the IP address of the requesting computer. Once the file has been requested and the
IP address obtained, the requesting computer can be counted and tracked.
Internet service providers (ISP’s) have used the federal computer fraud and
abuse statute to bring charges against persons who send large amounts of unsolicited
e-mail to their customers. In general, the ISP’s argue that large amounts of
unsolicited e-mail damage their computer servers and cause them to expend resources
to attempt to stop unsolicited e-mail from reaching their customers. America Online
(AOL) has brought a number cases against persons who have transmitted large
amounts of unsolicited e-mail through its servers and to its subscribers alleging, inter
alia, that the processing of large amounts of unsolicited e-mail imposes significant
costs on the company.31 AOL has been successful on a number of these claims and
has been awarded monetary damages as well as injunctive relief.
Federal Trade Commission Actions. Prior to the enactment of the CAN-
SPAM Act, the Federal Trade Commission did not have any specific authority with
respect to commercial e-mail. However, under the FTC Act, it did have the authority
to address deceptive sales and marketing practices on the Internet, including the use
of fraudulent commercial e-mail.
Over the past several years, the FTC has monitored unsolicited commercial e-
mail and compiled a database of fraudulent messages that were forwarded by
consumers.32 On April 30, 2003, the FTC released a report by the Commission’s
Division of Marketing Practices review false claims appearing in unsolicited
commercial e-mail. The Commission found that approximately 66% of the
unsolicited commercial e-mail analyzed contained false information in either the
“From” line, “Subject” line, or in the text of the message.33
Prior to the issuance of the report, the FTC brought its first case involving spam
with deceptive subject lines. On April 15, 2003, the Commission asked a federal
judge to halt “an allegedly illegal spam operation that uses deceptively bland subject
lines, false return addresses, and empty ‘reply-to’ links to expose unsuspecting
consumers, including children, to sexually explicit material.”34 The Commission
alleges that Brian Westby used the deceptive spam to direct consumers to an adult
31 See e.g., America Online v. National Healthcare Discount, 174 F. Supp.2d 890 (ND Iowa,
2001); America Online v. IMS, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20645 (ED Va., 1998); America
Online v. LCGM, 46 F. Supp.2d 444 (ED Va., 1998). For more information on American
Online’s efforts to prevent the transmission of unsolicited e-mail, see
32 The FTC’s actions with regard to unsolicited commercial e-mail were outlined in
congressional testimony given by the Bureau of Consumer Protection on April 26, 2001.
This testimony can be found at [http://www.ftc.gov/os/2001/04/unsolicommemail.htm].
33 A copy of the report can be found at
[ h t t p : / / www.f t c.go v/ r e por t s / s pam/ 030429spamr epor t .pdf ] .
34 See FTC Press Release, FTC Asks Court to Block Deceptive Spam Operation, April 17,
2003. [http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2003/04/westby.htm]. A copy of the complaint, Federal
Trade Commission v. Brian D. Westby, Case No. 03C-2540, United States District Court for
the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, can be found at
[ ht t p: / / www.f t c.gov/ os/ 2003/ 04/ br i a nwest byc mp.pdf ] .
website. The FTC asked the court to issue a temporary injunction, pending trial. The
court granted a preliminary injunction on April 22, 2003.35
The FTC has brought a number of other actions against consumer fraud schemes
that involve unsolicited commercial e-mail. Many cases involve alleged pyramid
schemes, often disguised as work at home opportunities, that are perpetrated through
the use of unsolicited e-mail. In FTC v. Martinelli36, the FTC targeted a company
soliciting recruits for a work at home opportunity that would allegedly earn
participants $13.50 per hour. The e-mail messages sent claimed that if the recipient
sent a registration fee of over $28 they would receive everything they needed for the
job. In fact, what participants received was a kit that instructed them to place ads or
send messages similar to the ones to which they responded in an attempt to recruit
new participants. Their earnings would be based on the number of people they were
able to recruit. In its complaint, the FTC alleged that the defendants misrepresented
to consumers the salary that could be earned; failed to disclose that this was a
pyramid scheme; and provided others the means to commit the deceptive acts. A
court entered a stipulated final order banning the defendants from engaging in similar
schemes and requiring them to pay $72,000 in consumer redress.
The Commission has also brought a number of cases against alleged credit
repair scams that use unsolicited e-mail to advertise their services. These e-mail
messages generally encourage consumers to purchase information instructing them
how to acquire a new credit identity by applying for federally-issued identification
numbers and using these numbers in place of social security numbers to build a new
credit file. The messages fail to mention that using a false identification number to
apply for credit is a felony. Both the FTC and the Department of Justice have
pursued actions against these types of deceptive solicitations.37
Other recent cases pursued under the FTC Act address chain letters sent via e-
mail that encourage recipients to send cash to names posted on a list in order to have
their names added to the list and offer “reports” that instruct others on how to send
unsolicited e-mail for a profit.38 Other scams perpetrated through the use of
unsolicited e-mail include fraudulent credit repair offers, deceptive health and diet
offers, and fraudulent vacation offers.39
35 See [http://www.ftc.gov/os/2003/04/brianwestbyord.pdf].
36 FTC v. Martinelli, No. 399 CV 1272 (D. Conn. filed July 7, 1999).
37 See e.g., FTC v. Cliff Cross and d/b/a Build-It-Fast, Civ. No. M099CA018 (W.D. Tex.
filed Feb. 1, 1999); FTC v. Ralph Lewis Mitchell, Jr., No. CV 99-984 TJH (C.D. Cal. filed
Jan. 29, 1999); U.S. v. David Story, d/b/a Network Publications, 3-99CV0968-L (N.D. Tex.
filed April 29, 1999).
38 A summary of these cases, as well as copies of the complaints and settlement documents
can be found at [http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2002/02/eileenspam1.htm].
39 The FTC has compiled a list of the twelve most common e-mail scams. For information
State Laws Regarding Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail
As noted above, the CAN-SPAM Act preempts state laws that expressly
regulate the use of electronic mail to send commercial messages.40 The act became
effective on January 1, 2004, and as such, many of the state laws discussed below are
State Statutes. To date, at least thirty-six states have enacted legislation
placing certain restrictions on the transmission of unsolicited commercial e-mail.4142
Nevada became the first state to enact such legislation in 1997. Under Nevada law,
it is unlawful to send an unsolicited commercial e-mail message unless it is labeled
or otherwise identifiable as an advertisement. The message must include the sender’s
name, physical address, and e-mail address, as well as instructions for opting out of
the sender’s distribution list. The law also prohibits the use of false routing
information and the distribution of software designed to create false routing
information. A later amendment to the original statute made it unlawful to send
unsolicited commercial e-mail with the intent to disrupt the normal operation or use
of a computer, Internet site, or e-mail address.
Much of the legislation enacted subsequent to the Nevada statute prohibits the
transmission of unsolicited e-mail containing false or misleading header or routing43
information. States have also enacted legislation requiring that unsolicited e-mail
contain opt-out information or provide information about the sender, including a44
physical address or telephone number. In addition, some state statutes include
specific provisions relating to the transmission of adult oriented advertisements via
40 P.L. 108-187, Sec. 8(b)(1).
41 For a complete list of state statutes see [http://www.spamlaws.com/state/summary.html].
42 N.R.S. §§ 41.705 - 41.735, added by Nevada Acts 1997 ch. 341, Senate Bill 13. The
statute was subsequently amended to criminalize certain acts related to the transmission of
electronic mail in 2001. See Nevada Acts 2001 ch. 274, Senate Bill 48.
43 Arkansas, Ark. Code § 5-41-205; Arizona, not yet codified, see S.B. 1280, approved May
Delaware, Del. Code § 937; Idaho, Idaho Code § 48-603E(3); Illinois, 815 ILCS 511/10(a);
Indiana, not yet codified, House Bill 1083, approved April 17, 2003; Iowa, Iowa Code §
Maryland, Md. Commercial Law Code § 14-3001 et seq.; Minnesota, Minn. Stat. §
776.1; Rhode Island, RI Stat. § 11-52-4.1(7); South Dakota, not yet codified, see Senate Bill
RCW § 19.190.020; and West Virginia, W. Va. Code § 46A-6G-2.
44 California, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17538.4; Colorado, CRS § 6-2.5-103(5); Iowa, Iowa
Code § 714E.1(2)(d); Kansas, not yet codified, see Senate Bill 467 (2002); Minnesota,
Minn. Stat. § 395F.694, sub. 4; Missouri, R.S. Mo. § 407.1310.1.; North Dakota, N.D. Cent.
Code § 51-27-05; Rhode Island, RI Stat. § 6-47-2; Tennessee, Tenn. Code § 47-18-2501(b);
and Utah, Utah Code § 13-36-103.
unsolicited e-mail, requiring these messages to be labeled as such.45 While not a
direct regulation of unsolicited e-mail, other states have enacted statutes that
criminalize the misuse of e-mail with the intent to harass, or the transmission of
“lewd, lascivious, or obscene material.”46
Virginia recently became the first state to make the transmission of unsolicited
bulk e-mail a felony under certain circumstances.47 A person is guilty of a Class 6
felony under the Virginia law if he or she used a computer or computer network with
the intent to falsify or forge electronic mail transmission information or other routing
information; and the volume of e-mail transmitted exceeded 10,000 attempted
recipients in any 24-hour period, 100,000 attempted recipients in any 30-day time
period, or one million attempted recipients in any one-year time period, or the
revenue generated from the specific e-mail transmission exceeded $1,000, or the total
revenue generated from all such e-mail transmitted to any e-mail service provider
exceeded $50,000. In Virginia, a Class 6 felony carries a prison term of up to five
Legal Challenges to State Statutes. Legal challenges have been brought
against at least two state statutes - California and Washington. The challenges
alleged that the state statutes placed an undue burden on interstate commerce in
violation of the dormant commerce clause of the United States Constitution. In each
case, the court upheld the statute, finding that the local benefits of the act outweighed49
the burden placed on those sending the unsolicited messages via e-mail.
In State of Washington v. Heckel, the defendant, a resident of another state,
challenged Washington’s restriction on unsolicited commercial e-mail alleging that50
the statute placed an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce. The
defendant was an Oregon resident who was charged with violating a state law that
prohibits the use of false or misleading routing information and false or misleading
subject lines in unsolicited commercial e-mail.51 The Washington law applies if a
message is sent from within Washington, if the sender knows that the recipient is a
45 Alaska, not yet codified, see H.B. 82, approved May 3, 2003, effective July 30, 2003;
Arkansas, not yet codified, see Act 1019 of 2003, approved April 2, 2003; California, Cal.
Bus. & Prof. Code § 17538.4(g); Kansas, not yet codified, see Senate Bill 467 (2002);
Maine, not yet codified, see H.B. 210, approved May 27, 2003; Minnesota, Minn. Stat. §
Tennessee, Tenn. Code § 47-18-2501(e); Utah, Utah Code § 13-36-103; and Wisconsin,
Wis. Stat. § 944.25.
46 See e.g., 27 Md. Code Ann. §§ 555C(1)(B) and (C).
47 Va. Code § 18.2-152.3:1.
48 Va. Code § 18.2-10(f).
49 State v. Heckel, 24 P.3d 404 (S. Ct. Wash. 2001); Ferguson v. Friendfinders, Inc., 115 Cal.
Rptr.2d 258 (2002).
50 24 P.3d 404 (S. Ct. Wash. 2001).
51 RCW § 19.190.020.
Washington resident, or if the sender is able to confirm the residency of the recipient
by contacting the registrant of the internet domain name contained in the recipient’s
The defendant argued that the Washington statute violated the dormant
commerce clause of the Constitution53 by discriminating against persons doing
business outside the state. The court rejected this argument finding that the statute
“applies evenhandedly to in-state and out-of-state spammers” and would be equally
enforceable against a Washington resident engaging in the same practices.54 The
court then articulated the balancing test that must be applied when considering state
statutes that may burden interstate commerce by stating that “where the statute
regulates evenhandedly to effectuate a legitimate local public interest, and its effects
on interstate commerce are only incidental, it will be upheld unless the burden
imposed on such commerce is clearly excessive relative to the putative local
benefits.”55 The court determined that the statute’s “local benefits surpass any
alleged burden on interstate commerce,” thus rejecting the defendant’s challenge and
upholding the statute.56
In Ferguson v. Friendfinders, Inc., a California resident filed suit against
advertisers who were sending unsolicited commercial e-mail in violation of the
California Business and Professional Code § 17538.4.57 The statute applies to e-mail
that is sent to “a California resident via an electronic mail service provider’s service
or equipment located in this state.”58 A lower court dismissed the suit, finding that
the provisions in question violated the dormant commerce clause of the
Constitution.59 The appellate court reversed the lower court’s opinion and upheld the
On appeal, the defendants argued that the statute, “when viewed in the context
of Internet reality,” attempted to regulate beyond California’s borders.60 The court
rejected this argument citing the language of the statute and its express application
only to e-mail that is sent to a California resident by means of an electronic mail
53 The dormant commerce clause is “the principle that the states impermissibly intrude on
this federal power [to regulate interstate commerce] when they enact laws that unduly
burden interstate commerce.” 24 P.3d at 409.
54 24 P.3d at 409.
55 Id (citations omitted).
57 115 Cal. Rptr.2d 258 (2002). Section 17538.4 requires unsolicited commercial e-mail
messages to include opt-out instructions and contact information. The statute also requires
that certain messages be labeled with the letters “ADV” or “ADV:ADLT” at the beginning
of the subject line.
58 Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17538.4(d).
59 115 Cal. Rptr.2d at 260.
60 Id at 263.
service provider who has equipment in the state.61 Additionally, the court rejected
the argument that the statute discriminated against interstate commerce, and went on
to apply the balancing test applied in Heckel, discussed above. The court found that
the state had “a substantial legitimate interest in protecting its citizens from the
harmful effects of deceptive UCE [unsolicited commercial e-mail] and that [the
statute] furthered that important interest.”62 Thus, the court determined that the
burdens imposed on interstate commerce did not outweigh the benefits of the
st at ut e. 63
Additional Federal Legislation
A number of bills related to unsolicited commercial e-mail were introduced in
the 108th Congress. Apart from the passage of S. 877 (P.L. 108-187), no action has
been taken on the floor of either chamber with respect to any of the bills discussed
S. 563, the Computer Owners’ Bill of Rights, would, inter alia, require the
Federal Trade Commission to establish a registry of persons who do not wish to
receive “unsolicited marketing e-mail.”64 The registry would be made available to
the public, and transmission of unsolicited marketing e-mail to those on the list
would be prohibited. Exceptions to the general prohibition could be authorized by
the FTC under regulations promulgated pursuant to the legislation if enacted.
Violations of the prohibition set forth would be subject to a civil penalty of up to
S. 1052, the Ban on Deceptive Unsolicited Bulk Electronic Mail Act of 2003,
would make it unlawful for any person to knowingly and intentionally use a computer
or computer network to falsify or forge electronic mail transmission information or
other source, destination, routing, or subject heading information in connection with
the transmission of unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail through, or into, the computer
network of an e-mail service provider or its subscribers.65 It would also be unlawful
to transmit an e-mail message to a recipient who requests not to receive unsolicited
bulk commercial e-mail; or collect e-mail addresses from public and private spaces66
for the purpose of transmitting unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail. Violations of
the act would be considered a RICO predicate and would constitute an unfair or67
deceptive act or practice under the Federal Trade Commission Act.
61 Id at 264.
62 Id at 268.
63 Id at 269.
64 S. 563, 108th Cong., Sec. 5.
65 S. 1052, 108th Cong., Sec. 2(a)(1).
66 S. 1052, 108th Cong., Sec. 2(a)(2) and (3).
67 S. 1052, 108th Cong., Sec. 2(b)(1) and (2).
The bill would also require senders of unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail to
provide recipients with a clear and conspicuous opportunity to request not to receive
future unsolicited e-mail.68
S. 1231, the Stop Pornography and Abusive Marketing Act, or the SPAM
Act, would, inter alia, require the Federal Trade Commission to establish a
nationwide no-spam registry in which any person that does not wish to receive
unsolicited commercial e-mail my register e-mail addresses.69 It would be unlawful
for a person to initiate an unsolicited commercial e-mail message to a registered
address, and civil penalties of up to $5,000 could be imposed for each violation.70
In addition to the creation of the national registry, the bill would also impose a
number of other requirements with respect to the transmission of unsolicited
commercial e-mail. The act would require such messages to include in the subject
line, the characters ‘ADV:’,71 and require all commercial and unsolicited commercial
e-mail to include a valid return address, a valid postal address, and provide the
recipient with the right to decline to receive further messages from the sender.72
Under the act, it would be unlawful for a person to initiate the transmission of
commercial e-mail or unsolicited commercial e-mail in violation of an Internet
service provider’s policies with respect to e-mail, account registration and use, or
other terms of service;73 or to initiate the transmission of commercial or unsolicited
commercial e-mail that contains false, misleading, or deceptive information in the
subject line, header or router information, or the body of the message.74 It would also
be unlawful for a person to initiate the transmission of a commercial or unsolicited
commercial e-mail messages to addresses obtained through harvesting or by using
a automated method of generating e-mail addresses.75
Generally, the act would be enforced by the Federal trade Commission, but
actions by states, Internet service providers, and individual consumers would also be
S. 1293, the Criminal Spam Act of 2003, would provide criminal penalties for
persons who knowingly access a protected computer without authorization, and
intentionally initiate the transmission of multiple commercial electronic mail
68 S. 1052, 108th Cong., Sec. 2(c).
69 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(a).
70 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(d); Sec. 102(b)(1).
71 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Sec. 201(a).
72 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Sec. 204; Sec. 206.
73 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Sec. 202.
74 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Sec. 203.
75 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Sec. 205.
76 S. 1231, 108th Cong., Title III.
messages from or through such computer.77 Criminal penalties could also be
imposed for knowingly using a protected computer to relay or retransmit multiple
commercial electronic mail messages, with the intent to deceive or mislead
recipients, or any Internet access service, as to the origin of such messages; falsifying
header information in multiple commercial electronic mail messages and
intentionally initiating the transmission of such messages; or registering, using
information that falsifies the identity of the actual registrant, for 5 or more electronic
mail accounts or online user accounts or 2 or more domain names, and intentionally
initiating the transmission of multiple electronic mail messages from such accounts.
Penalties for violations include a fine, imprisonment for not more than five
years, or both, if the offense is committed in furtherance of any felony; or the
defendant has been previously convicted of the same or similar offenses. Lesser
terms of imprisonment may be imposed under other circumstances. In addition to
fines and imprisonment, the bill requires the forfeiture of any property constituting
or traceable to gross profits or other proceeds obtained from the offense; and any
equipment, software, or other technology used or intended to be used to commit or
to promote the commission of such offense. Civil actions may be brought by the
Attorney General or by any person engaged in the business of providing an Internet
access service to the public.
H.R. 122, the Wireless Telephone Spam Protection Act, would prohibit the
use of the text, graphic, or image messaging systems of wireless telephone systems
to transmit unsolicited commercial messages.
H.R. 1933,78 the Restrict and Eliminate the Delivery of Unsolicited
Commercial Electronic Mail or Spam Act of 2003, or the REDUCE Spam Act
of 2003, would amend title 18 of the United States Code to create criminal penalties
for the “transmission of any unsolicited commercial electronic mail message, with
knowledge and intent that the message contains or is accompanied by header
information that is false or materially misleading.”79 Violators could be subject to
a fine or imprisonment for up to one year or both.
The bill would also prohibit the transmission of unsolicited commercial e-mail
unless certain requirements are met. The transmission of unsolicited commercial e-
mail would be prohibited unless the subject line of such e-mail includes “an
identification that complies with the standards adopted by the Internet Engineering
Task Force for identification of unsolicited commercial electronic mail messages; or
in the case of the absence of such standards, ‘ADV:’ as the first four characters.”80
Senders would also be required to establish a valid sender-operated return address
77 S. 1293, 108th Cong., Sec. 2(a).
78 S. 1327 appears to be substantially similar to H.R. 1933.
79 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 3.
80 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 4(a).
where the recipient could notify the sender not to send any further messages.81 It
would be unlawful for a person to send any unsolicited electronic mail to a recipient
after the recipient has requested not to receive any further messages from that
sender.82 It would also be unlawful for any person to transmit any unsolicited e-mail
that contains a subject heading “that such person knows, or reasonably should know,
is likely to mislead a recipient, acting reasonably under the circumstances, about a
material fact regarding the contents of subject matter of the message.”83
The act would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which would be
required to initiate a rulemaking proceeding within 30 days enactment to address the
enforcement of the act.84 The rulemaking would also be required to address
procedures for submitting a complaint to the Commission concerning violations; civil
penalties for violations; procedures for granting “a reward of not less than 20 percent
of the total civil penalty imposed to the first person that identifies the person in
violation of [the act]; and supplies information that leads to the successful collection
of a civil penalty by the Commission;” and civil penalties for knowingly submitting
a false complaint to the Commission.85
Private rights of action by recipients of an unsolicited commercial e-mail
messages and Internet service providers would also be allowed.86
H.R. 2214, the Reduction in Distribution of Spam Act of 2003, includes a
number of civil and criminal provisions related to the transmission of commercial e-
mail. The act would prohibit the transmission of any commercial e-mail messages
unless it contains a clear and conspicuous identification that the message is an
advertisement or solicitation; clear and conspicuous notice of the opportunity to
decline to receive future unsolicited commercial e-mail messages from the sender;
a functioning return e-mail address or other Internet-based mechanism that the
recipient may use to submit a request not to receive any future messages; and a valid
physical address for the sender.87 The sender or any person acting on behalf of the
sender would be prohibited from initiating the transmission of an unsolicited e-mail
message to any recipient who has requested not to receive such messages from the
sender for a three year period beginning 10 days after the receipt of the original
request.88 The transmission of a commercial e-mail with fraudulent header
information, as well as the transmission of commercial e-mail to an address illegally
81 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 4(b)(1).
82 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 4(b)(3).
83 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 4(c)(2).
84 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 5(a) and (b).
85 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 5(b)(1) - (4).
86 H.R. 1933, 108th Cong., Sec. 6(a).
87 H.R. 2214, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(a).
88 H.R. 2214, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(b).
harvested, would also be prohibited.89 These provisions would be enforced by the
Federal Trade Commission, through private rights of action brought by Internet
service providers, and actions brought by states.90
The act would also amend title 18 of the United States Code to create criminal
penalties for certain actions related to the transmission of unsolicited commercial e-
mail.91 Generally, criminal penalties could be imposed if the sender falsified his or
her identity in a commercial e-mail message or for the failure to place warning labels
on unsolicited commercial e-mail containing sexually oriented material.92
H.R. 2515, the Anti-Spam Act of 2003, would place a number of restrictions
on the transmission of unsolicited commercial electronic mail. The bill would
require the inclusion of a clear and conspicuous identification that the message is a
commercial electronic mail message, a clear and conspicuous notice of the
opportunity to decline to receive future messages from the sender or any covered
affiliate of the sender, and an e-mail address or other mechanism that the recipient
may use to send a request not to receive future messages, and a valid street address
of the sender.93 After receiving notice from a recipient that he or she does not wish
to receive future messages, the sender would be prohibited from initiating the
transmission of any commercial electronic mail message to the recipient for five94
H.R. 2515 would also prohibit the transmission of a commercial electronic mail
message that contains false or misleading header information or that contains a
subject heading that would be likely to mislead a recipient about a material fact
regarding the contents or subject matter of the message.95 The bill also includes
prohibitions on the transmission of commercial electronic mail messages to addresses
that were illegally harvested or to addresses that were generated by “use of automated
means based on permutations of combining names, letters, or numbers for the
purpose of sending commercial electronic mail.”96 Messages containing sexually
oriented material would be required to include a label indicating that such material
is included therein.97
If enacted, the act would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission,98 with
private rights of action available to providers of Internet access service and state
89 H.R. 2214, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(c) and (d).
90 H.R. 2214, 108th Cong., Sec. 102 - Sec. 105.
91 H.R. 2214, 108th Cong., Title II.
92 H.R. 2214, 108th Cong., Sec. 201.
93 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(a).
94 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(b).
95 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(c).
96 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(d) and (e).
97 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Sec. 101(f).
98 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Sec. 105.
attorneys general.99 The bill also includes criminal penalties for falsifying the
sender’s identity in commercial electronic mail, failure to place warning labels on
commercial electronic mail containing sexually oriented materials, and illicit
harvesting of electronic mail addresses.100
99 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Sec. 102 and Sec. 103.
100 H.R. 2515, 108th Cong., Title II.