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The deluge of unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam, that threatens to choke the Internet has produced that rarest of Washington occurrences: consensus. Even rarer, the consensus is on the need to regulate. Major Internet companies, consumer advocates and policy-makers agree that to protect the viability of electronic mail — probably the most widely used Internet application — Congress must enact legislation to reduce the amount of spam. The concern about spam is growing and well-founded. Spam is estimated to now make up 40 percent of all e-mail communications, posing problems for consumers, Internet service providers and legitimate marketers alike. Consumers complain of mailboxes full of messages that are at the very least annoying, and that at their worst are personally offensive. Spam imposes costs on ISPs that can be measured in reduced available bandwidth, and in the increased equipment and person-hours required to stem the flow. Legitimate marketers worry that unwanted marketing messages drown out appropriate, permission-based marketing. Noncommercial political speech is also drowned out. Overall, there is concern that unsolicited e-mail will compromise the value of electronic mail and, ultimately, of the Internet. HIDDEN COMPLEXITY However, as Congress prepares to respond to the public demand for legislation, the appearance of consensus hides complex questions and conflicting ideas about how best to fight spam. As so often happens in the policy arena, there are competing interests at stake, all with some validity. Legislation must effectively curb the proliferation of commercial spam, without constraining the legitimate online marketplace. It must limit the unwanted messages that reach consumers, while protecting the right of free speech. It must address the technological threats to the Internet experienced most directly by ISPs, without stifling innovative means of reaching individuals. And as a federal law, it must take into account the interests of the states in protecting the consumer rights of their citizens. A look at just some of the tough issues raised by spam proposals highlights the challenges ahead:

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