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WASHINGTON — Standing on the steps of the Capitol, Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns loudly questions how many hay bales could be placed in a large excavation pit that will be the future home of a visitors center.

He then adds, with a loud cackle: "It looks like a gold mine in Montana," and asks why they cannot just use a double-wide trailer for the visitors center.

These are typical comments for Burns who likes to cultivate an image of himself as a rube. The image stands in stark contrast to his leadership in the effort to rein in spam, unsolicited e-mails offering a broad range of items that includes pornography, low-interest loans and Viagra.

Burns and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have been trying to move legislation for several years that would require marketers to provide a working return address and give recipients the opportunity to tell marketers that they do not want to receive any more messages.

"We've just now gotten critical mass," Burns said. "Everybody is saying 'What's all this trash?' It's just grown in numbers to the point where it has attracted the attention of more people." Furthermore, companies that in the past have urged Congress to keep its mitts off of the Internet now are asking for help.

"They were cool to the idea of government intervention, but they've realized we need a law to bring the industry together to solve this problem," Burns said.

Both AOL Time Warner and Microsoft have said they support legislation to stop spam, and the Direct Marketing Association has said it would support legislation that focuses on punishing the senders of fraudulent e-mails. Officials with AOL have estimated the company blocks 2 billion spam messages every day, about two-thirds of the total e-mails coming into its servers.

"It is a major source of consumer annoyance — there is an outcry — and companies are upset because it is using up a lot of bandwidth," said Mark Uncapher, a senior vice president for the Information Technology Association of America.

Because of the First Amendment and technological limitations, Burns and other lawmakers cannot simply prohibit unsolicited e-mail. Under the senators' bill, people who continue to send unsolicited e-mails after an e-mail account holder has asked to be removed from a list could face fines of as much as $500,000.

Burns and other legislators have rejected calls by some consumer groups to permit people to sue the senders of spam.

onthenet history of SPAM

A federal law likely would supersede the anti-spam laws already in place in 27 states, including Wyoming, which passed a law in March. The Wyoming law prohibits commercial e-mail that uses a third party's domain name without permission, includes a false or misleading subject line, or misrepresents its point of origin or other routing information. The law goes into effect July 1. Montana does not have an anti-spam law.

Virginia amended its anti-spam law this year to permit the incarceration of those who send unsolicited e-mails.

Uncapher said that the proliferation of state laws has increased pressure on Congress to act and provide uniform regulations for the entire country.

Any federal law would supersede most, if not all, of the state laws.

"If you have 50 laws, it will really gum up the Internet without solving the problem," Uncapher said.

Uncapher said legislation also has been stymied by disagreement among members of the House of Representatives about what a bill should include. One group of House members wanted to focus on misleading headers while another group wanted much more comprehensive legislation. Facing constituent complaints, House members have started to put their differences aside.

"I suspect a final bill will come to look like what Burns and Wyden have agreed to," Uncapher said. "They have kind of found the common ground." Although Uncapher is optimistic about the prospects for a bill he is unsure of if it will be effective.

"I want to be real careful not to oversell anything," Uncapher said. "Spammers could simply go oversees. I expect that it is going to be an international issue that the Federal Trade Commission will have to get involved in."