RICHMOND, Va. Virginia has enacted the nation's harshest anti-spam law, giving authorities the power to seize assets earned from sending bulk unsolicited e-mail pitches while imposing sentences of up to five years in prison.
Much of the global Internet traffic passes through northern Virginia, home to major online companies such as America Online and MCI and a conduit to major federal communications hubs in neighboring Washington and its suburbs.
"We want to be able to put out not only a potential criminal violation with the felony but also to seize the proceeds from this illegal activity their cars, boats, airplanes, homes," Gov. Mark R. Warner said.
Although about half the states have anti-spam laws, no other allows authorities to seize the assets earned from spamming while imposing up to five years in prison, said Warner. The penalties can apply even if the sender and recipients live in different states.
Warner, who became a multimillionaire as a high-technology investor before he was elected governor, said technical filters and civil penalties have proven inadequate.
The new law is directed at commercial bulk e-mail, with certain provisions that kick in when someone sends at least 10,000 copies of a message in a single day or makes at least $1,000 from one such transmission.
"That's different than an occasional e-mail gone awry," Warner said.
The Virginia law also prohibits tools that automate spam and the forging of e-mail headers, which contain identification information on the sender and its service provider. Spammers often forge the headers to hide their identity and cover their tracks.
The same provisions could affect noncommercial unsolicited e-mail from charities, churches or political candidates if they exceed the volume limit or disguise the sender's identity.
In response to earlier efforts by states to curb spam, some direct marketers and business groups have claimed a First Amendment right to send e-mail solicitations.
Spamming has grown into a costly problem and the No. 1 complaint of AOL's nearly 35 million users, said Randall Boe, AOL's chief staff attorney. AOL blocks billions of pieces of spam each week, but billions more get through, he said.
John R. Levine, a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail, applauded tougher penalties for spammers, but questioned how effective Virginia's law will be.
"It depends on prosecutors to put them in line along with rapists, murderers and wife-beaters, so I don't think it will be very effective without additional funding," Levine said.
In a study released April 29 in advance of a three-day forum on how government and businesses should deal with spam, the Federal Trade Commission said a third of spam e-mails contained false information.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., plans to introduce legislation this week offering rewards for individuals who help track down spammers. Her bill would require marketers to label spam and prohibit false or misleading message headers.
State laws with similar provisions have been hard to enforce because they require tremendous resources to track down elusive spammers.
Earlier this week, AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft announced a joint initiative to combat spam through such techniques as identifying and restricting messages with deceptive headers.