By DANNY LAYNE
Capital News Service
LANSING — While deceptive or misleading electronic messages continue to flow into e-mail accounts, legislation addressing the problem remains stalled in committee hearings.
House Bill 5777 was introduced by Rep. Marc Shulman, D-Battle Creek, in early March and was referred to the Committee on Commerce. That committee, in turn, referred the bill to the House Committee on Energy and Technology, where it remains idle.
Shulman’s bill would amend the Michigan Consumer Protection Act to prohibit the transmission, or the assistance in such transmissions, of misleading commercial electronic mail messages. The practice of sending deceptive SPAM, the e-mail equivalent of junk mail, to Michigan residents could be declared unfair, unconscionable or deceptive acts under the proposed bill.
While the bill prohibits assisting in the transmission of deceptive e-mails, it also includes a provision whereby Internet Service Providers could, on their own initiative, block or refuse delivery of questionable e-mail without fear of liability.
“The current state law is clear on what we can do if e-mails include something like child pornography or are part of a fraud or scheme,” said Greg Bird, the communications director for the Attorney General’s office. “Our concern is what it doesn’t address.”
The AG office would like tougher anti-SPAM legislation that provides more power for state law enforcement officials to prosecute.
“Without tougher laws, we’ll have a more difficult time taking action against the originators of SPAM,” Bird said.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, acknowledged the problem three years ago when he said the World Wide Web was a prime environment for perpetrators of old frauds and newly disguised scams. For as little as $100, bulk e-mails could easily be sent anonymously via the Internet to a million people.
The identities of senders could be disguised, Levin cautioned then, and unscrupulous individuals can easily transverse international borders and unleash a relentless barrage of e-mails from places that are difficult to track or close.
“Holding the line É in a medium like this is a difficult job,” Levin stated.
Congressional findings last year indicate politicians now recognize that unsolicited e-mails, unlike telemarketing phone calls, can impose a significant cost on Internet Service Providers, businesses and educational or non-profit organizations that deliver, store and receive such e-mails. There is also a concern that SPAM recipients may be unable to refuse, reject or “opt out” of such electronic mailings.
In Michigan, some employers have expressed concern that productivity could be affected as workers weed through unsolicited e-mails or, worse, by interoffice networks being overwhelmed by increased e-mail traffic.
At Michigan State University, for example, campus officials recently estimated that e-mail traffic increased about 30 percent in the last year, with more than a million messages passing through the school’s e-mail system daily. That sort of increase could easily overburden a business or company ill prepared for the amount of e-mail traffic.
While federal lawmakers are primarily focused on Internet-based stock transactions and wire fraud, and state legislators are looking at the deliberate transmission of deceptive e-mails, information technology specialists throughout Michigan are more concerned about screening incoming e-mail for viruses and SPAM.
“SPAM continues to be more of a nuisance than a problem,” said Tim Bledsoe, the support services manager for SageStone, Inc., a business-to-business and e-commerce software consulting and technologies firm that employs the largest group of Microsoft Certified Developers in Michigan. “SPAM has become more prevalent in the last year, but its overall impact on employee productivity is negligible.”
Handling SPAM, and even the introduction of viruses onto a computer or network, is a responsibility best handled on the individual level, Bledsoe added.
“There are software packages available that isolate or quarantine suspect e-mails and attachments, but the end user has to properly use the software for it to work,” he said.
It is important to note that many small businesses in Michigan don’t employ any kind of technical staff, according to Michael Rogers, the vice president of communications at the Small Business Administration of Michigan.
“The best advice we can provide to our members is to constantly back up their data,” Rogers said. “People cannot become impatient or complacent in their efforts to update virus definitions or make copies, offline, of customer lists and accounting records.”
People also have to be aware of “back-door” opportunities for viruses to be introduced into a small business environment.
“Many people use Internet Service Providers, such as America Online or Hotmail, and those can be unintentional sources of viruses and SPAM,” Rogers added. “Even if your children use the same computer as the one used in small businesses, a virus can be carried in on disk from a school computer. You have to constantly be aware.”
At Sagestone, the Grand Rapids-based company provides specific levels of security in its custom-written application codes. Even then, SPAM and virus attacks can still occur.
“Big-name, nationally-known companies are encountering the same situation that many small businesses do,” Bledsoe said. “There’s always someone out the trying to find a way around network security and filtering software.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By DANNY LAYNE