The House of Congress Energy and Commerce Committee has unanimously approved a bill to limit the use of ‘spam’ – unsolicited marketing emails – despite frantic eleventh-hour lobbying by financial services companies.

Several banking, securities and insurance firms – including Merrill Lynch & Co, Bank of America, Credit Suisse First Boston and Chubb Group Insurance – recently banded to push for changes in the bill, a fight they now have to take to the House of Congress in full session.

The bill, one of four such pieces of legislation before Congress and the Senate, proposes that consumers can request marketers to remove their names from online mailing lists. Companies that do not comply face government action (overseen by the Federal Trade Commission) and are liable to legal action from ISPs for $500 per infringement, to a total of $50,000. Individuals could also bring lawsuits against unrepentant spammers, though not class-action suits.

The anti-bill consortium claims that the legislation goes too far, opening the door to nuisance legal action and a federally enforced regulatory regime. But the vehement opposition by financial groups has raised questions about their motives. Two Democrat members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, John Dingell (Michigan) and Edward Markey (Massachusetts), have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the online practices of securities firms. In particular, they want the SEC to examine how the financial industry acquires email addresses, whether investment companies use spam to solicit investors, if privacy rules are being followed by financial firms and whether broker-dealers send emails containing stock-buying advice.

Further suspicions about the intentions of financial services companies were voiced by Ray Everett-Church of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email. “I think what this really promises is all the credit card solicitations you get in your postal mailbox today you’ll be getting over email in the future,” he warned.

News source: Wall Street Journal