By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 22, 2003; Page A01
As a Senate committee sought answers yesterday on how to curb the overwhelming surge of junk e-mail, one of the nation's most notorious spammers told members just how hard their job would be.
Ronald Scelson, an eighth-grade dropout and self-taught computer programmer from Louisiana, riveted the Commerce Committee hearing room as he explained that he sends between 120 million and 180 million e-mails every 12 hours.
He boasted that in 24 hours he could crack sophisticated software filters designed to block spam.
And he accused Internet providers of hypocrisy in claiming to want to protect their customers from unsolicited messages.
Large Internet companies spam their own members, he said, while other network access providers have signed contracts allowing known spammers to send out mass e-mail.
"I'm probably the most hated person in this room," said an unapologetic Scelson, responding to a parade of technology, government and marketing officials who decried the purveyors of junk e-mail.
Scelson and eight other witnesses testified as Congress grapples with what Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) called a tide of "digital dreck" that threatens e-mail communication, one of the most powerful tools of the Internet age.
With spam now costing U.S. businesses upwards of $10 billion a year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is co-sponsoring an anti-spam bill with Burns, said it was time for Congress to stop dawdling and pass federal legislation.
All of the witnesses agreed that spam is a complex problem that defies an easy fix. But as executives from leading software companies and online providers fidgeted uncomfortably, the man known to anti-spam tracking groups as the "Cajun Spammer" described how he easily acquires millions of e-mail addresses from publicly available member directories at America Online and other providers.
Moreover, he said, "the same people complaining about spam send e-mail" with solicitations for their own products and services. "AOL spams its members," he said.
This prompted the committee chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to turn to Ted Leonsis, vice president of AOL.
"Mr. Leonsis, are you a spammer?" McCain asked.
Leonsis, who had testified minutes earlier about how AOL was blocking 2.4 billion pieces of spam per day, did not answer directly.
Scelson also testified about how some Internet access providers signed little-known agreements, called "pink contracts," with known spammers to allow them to send mail in bulk, at prices higher than other commercial clients were charged.
Although the contracts mandated that bulk e-mailers abide by all state laws, Scelson said it did not matter if the e-mailers followed the rules. Most of the providers rip up the contracts and kick spammers off their systems after being threatened by anti-spam organizations that track mass e-mailers and put them on blacklists.
As a result, Scelson said, he has had no choice but to resort to forging the sender information in his bulk e-mail so he can be anonymous and maintain his connection to the Internet.
"This is censorship," he said, arguing that both anti-spam vigilantes and Internet providers that filter out spam are depriving people of their right to see their mail.
"People still buy this stuff," he said, claiming that his clients get a response rate to his e-mail of 1 to 2 percent.
Scelson, who said he does not distribute mail containing pornography, said one of his biggest clients sells a package of anti-virus computer software called Norton SystemWorks at cut-rate prices.
Officials at Symantec Inc., which makes the Norton software, said in an interview that although they have not seen the package Scelson's client is selling, other similar offers that they have tracked down have proved to be counterfeit.
Scelson said he supports anti-spam legislation. But while committee members were clearly intrigued by his story, they gave little weight to his proposed solution:
Pass a tough spam law, but then prevent any Internet provider from blocking e-mail from bulk marketers that abide by the law.
The Burns-Wyden bill would make it illegal for bulk mailers to forge their sending location, have deceptive subject lines or prevent users from removing their names from e-mail lists. Owners of networks would retain the ability to block mail, and the legislation gives Internet providers legal standing to hunt down and sue spammers.
The committee also heard from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who advocates a nationwide do-not-spam registry similar to a newly created do-not-call telemarketing list, plus an international treaty on spam.
Several witnesses said legislation alone would not halt the spread of spam, which now accounts for more than 40 percent of all e-mail traffic. Trevor Hughes, representing a coalition of bulk e-mail service providers, said that it was time to "restore accountability" by having industry impose higher standards on itself.
Orson Swindle, one of two Federal Trade Commission members to testify, urged the industry to develop technology that could stop mail from any source except those pre-approved by users.
"There is a basic need for consumers to be free of any unwanted e-mail," Swindle said.