Va. enacts harsh penalties for `spam'

New law targets fraud in sending of e-mail to or from the state


In the toughest move to date against unsolicited commercial e-mail, Virginia yesterday enacted a law imposing harsh new felony penalties for sending such messages to computer users through deceptive means. The law would be enforced against those who use fraudulent practices to send bulk e-mail, commonly known as spam, to or from Virginia, a state that houses a number of major Internet providers including America Online, the nation's largest.

The new statute adds criminal penalties for fraudulent, high-volume spammers. It outlaws practices such as forging the return address line of an e-mail or hacking a computer in order to surreptitiously send spam. Those found guilty of sending more than 10,000 such deceptive e-mails in one day would be subject to a prison term of one to five years and forfeiture of profits and assets connected to spamming.

Consumer outrage at spam is causing states and Congress to start looking at stronger measures against spam. The Internet industry estimates that spam represents nearly half of all e-mail sent.

Public anger is even causing some in the industry to support federal legislation, if only to avoid having to deal with a patchwork of 50 state anti-spam laws. More than two dozen states have anti-spam laws, but enforcement problems and low penalties have made many of the laws ineffective.

Virginia's governor, Mark R. Warner, said the state's new law could have a significant impact on spam because half of all Internet traffic flows through that state. The passage of e-mail through Virginia's Internet service providers, he said, gives state prosecutors the legal ability to reach out to spammers in other states and jurisdictions, noting that an earlier, weaker state anti-spam law has survived constitutional challenges.

Some legal experts said they doubted whether Virginia is going to have as much of an impact as Warner suggests. Any legal case will probably be bogged down by questions over jurisdiction.

About half the states have attempted to regulate various aspects of spam. The first bill was passed in Nevada in 1997 and required only that marketers offer recipients a way to get removed from e-mail lists. Washington state has brought several high-profile anti-spam cases based on laws that prohibit sending e-mail to state residents that falsifies the sender or subject line.

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