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Congress Attacks Wireless Junk Mail


February 16, 2001

Feb 16, 2001 (Tech Web - CMP via COMTEX) — A bill waiting to be heard in Congress would trash unsolicited wireless advertising before it gets off the ground. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has resubmitted his "Wireless Telephone Spam Protection Act," entered late last session.

"These junk mail messages are intrusive, annoying, and can cost consumers if they pay for per minute charges under their calling plan," Holt said on introducing the bill. "If cell phone users want to receive ads on their phones, they have the right to. But no consumers should be forced to just because they have a mobile phone."

The bill, H.R. 113, would give customers an opt-out mechanism to avoid receiving text messages or calls that turn out to be an unwanted sales pitch.

"We certainly don't want to limit any business' ability to reach its customers in a way they don't mind being reached," said Peter Yeager, Holt's press secretary. "This bill would allow customers to receive these kinds of messages if they want to. For instance, we've heard of ideas where subscribers would get more minutes or a different rate if they allowed these advertising messages. It's only the unwanted messaging that we're trying to prevent."

The reaction to Holt's measure in the advertising industry has been passionate.

"It's a pretty stupid idea," said John Kamp, Washington legal counsel to the Wireless Advertising Association. "It's the essence of what can happen when you have bad government."

The WAA pointed out that wireless advertising hasn't really started yet. Kamp argued that to restrict it would be premature. "To ban it makes no sense," he said. "There may be all sorts of services that even Rep. Holt would want to use, for himself, his wife, or his children."

Holt maintained that there is a precedent for his bill. "The Wireless Telephone Spam Protection Act is a market-oriented solution to this problem that is modeled after the successful bipartisan 'Junk Fax' law that Congress enacted in the early 1990's," he said. "My proposal will expand that successful law to include the transmission of unsolicited text messages or advertisements to cellular telephones."

As with the junk-fax law, Holt's bill would allow individuals to sue the spammer for $500 per transmission, with repeated, willful violators facing penalties as high as $1,500 per incident.

Yeager pointed out that privacy concerns, particularly in relation to potentially invasive technologies, is on the rise. "The Can-Spam bill passed the House last Congress 427 to 1, so there's obviously some consensus out there that unwanted e-mails and spam are something to be taken seriously," Yeager said. "I'd take that to be a good sign for legislation such as this."

The WAA's Kamp voiced doubt that the bill will go anywhere, but doesn't dismiss the hostility that the idea of wireless ads can generate. "Although it's unlikely [Holt's] bill will go anywhere, it's naпve to ignore the fact that wireless advertising is almost viscerally controversial," Kamp said. "It's an early warning shot. People like Holt think the best way to solve any controversy is to shut it down. There's more than a little hysteria out there."

Yeager sees less hysteria than a chance to build consensus: "We're hopeful that through the course of this Congress we can work to get some co-sponsors on board and hopefully get the bill moving."

Kamp maintains that regulation is premature, though he said permission-based advertising is "the essence" of the WAA's self-regulatory proposals. He calls for calm, industry-led consideration of potential spam abuses.

"Wireless promises to be a significant medium in our country," he said, noting its success in Europe and the Pacific Rim. "We don't know yet exactly what it's going to look like in America, but we know it's going to come."

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