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What Is the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003?

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 requires senders to list a post office box or other mailing address on commercial e-mails.
The law requires that senders of commercial email provide a away for recipients to unsubscribe from receiving future messages.
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  • Written By: Robert Grimmick
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003 is a U.S. law aimed at reducing unwanted advertising and pornography in e-mail. The law does not prohibit unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam), but does require that senders of commercial e-mail include a way to unsubscribe or opt out. Other provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 ban wireless spam, require sexually explicit messages to include special labeling, and provide criminal penalties for e-mail harvesting. Although the effectiveness of the law has been questioned, several people have been convicted in court and sentenced to prison terms under the act’s criminal provisions.

By 2003, several U.S. states had passed anti-spam legislation, and the federal government was under pressure to create national standards for dealing with unsolicited commercial email, more commonly known as spam. The U.S. Congress responded by passing the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 16, 2003. The act superseded state laws and delegated most of the responsibility of dealing with spam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

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The law requires that senders of commercial email, whether solicited or unsolicited, provide a way for recipients to unsubscribe from future messages. Unsubscribe requests must be honored within 10 days, and cannot require any personal information beyond an e-mail address. Businesses are also required to list a physical address or post office box, use a real return e-mail address, and clearly identify the e-mail as an advertisement in some way. Subject lines cannot be misleading or deceptive, and pornographic e-mail must be identified with the words “SEXUALLY-EXPLICIT.”

In addition to regulating commercial e-mail, the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 criminalizes some activities associated with spamming. Using false information to register for multiple e-mail addresses, sending spam through other computers to disguise its origin, and using someone else’s computer to send spam without permission became illegal when the act went into effect. Spammers are also prohibited from harvesting e-mail addresses or sending messages to randomly generated addresses in the hopes that they exist.

Some have criticized the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 as being too lenient and difficult to enforce. Anti-spam groups dubbed the law the “YOU-CAN-SPAM Act” because it did not outlaw the practice. Some politicians criticized the law for omitting a way for people to sue spammers, a mechanism that was present in many of the state laws that the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 replaced. Several high-profile spammers, however, have been convicted and sentenced to prison under the act’s criminal provisions. One California man was sentenced to 70 months in prison after he used other users' e-mail accounts to send spam in an attempt to obtain credit card numbers.

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