updated 10/23/2003 2:21:12 PM ET 2003-10-23T18:21:12

The Senate has voted to impose tough new limits against sending unwanted commercial e-mails, but supporters warned computer users not to expect any immediate end to offers for prescription drugs, cheap loans, herbal remedies and pornography.

THE “CAN SPAM” bill, approved Wednesday by a 97-0 vote, would outlaw the shadiest techniques used by many of the Internet’s most prolific e-mailers, who pump out millions of unsolicited messages daily.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would prohibit senders of unsolicited commercial e-mail from disguising their identity by using a false return address or misleading subject line. The legislation also would prohibit senders from harvesting addresses off Web sites and require such e-mails to include a mechanism so recipients can indicate they do not want future mass-mailings.

A provision proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., authorizes the Federal Trade Commission to establish a do-not-spam list, similar to the agency’s popular do-not-call list of telephone numbers that marketers are supposed not to call. The Direct Marketing Association opposed that provision and has described it as “a bad idea that is never going to work.”

The Bush administration supports the bill, although similar legislation has stalled in the House.

“Kingpin spammers who send out e-mail by the millions are threatening to drown the Internet in a sea of trash, and the American people want it stopped,” Wyden said. Acknowledging problems with e-mails sent from overseas, he urged other countries to approve similar limits.

Burns said time spent by consumers wading through unwanted messages and the costs to businesses and Internet providers delivering them were “escalating and wide-ranging.” Under the bill, he said, “people will think twice before they send it, and that’s the answer.”

The bill also requires commercial e-mail senders to include their physical address, along with a clear notice that the message is an advertisement or sales pitch.

Despite the vote, senators cautioned computer users not to expect an immediate end to overflowing inboxes.

“The odds of us defeating spam by legislation alone are extremely low, but that does not mean we should stand idly by and do nothing about it,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Violators could be sentenced for up to three years in prison under an amendment by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Their provision explicitly prohibits spammers from, among other practices, hacking into computers to use them as surreptitious relay points to disguise the origin of unwanted e-mails.

Hatch said the bill cracks down on unwanted e-mails “without unnecessarily burdening legitimate electronic commerce.” The bill was supported by some leading technology companies, such as Microsoft Corp. and Time Warner’s America Online. AOL said it blocks roughly 2.4 billion unwanted e-mails daily from subscribers.

Technology companies have developed increasingly sophisticated software to filter unwanted e-mails, but legislation would give consumers one more tool to combat spam. The term was applied to unwanted e-mails after a 1970 Monty Python skit in which an exasperated restaurant customer is urged to order the canned meat product until she screams, “I don’t want any Spam!”

Sens. John Edwards, D-N.C., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, missed Wednesday’s vote.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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