The US Congress moved a step closer to passing its first law regulating unsolicited commercial e-mail -- or spam -- when the House of Representatives approved a bill that seeks to impose fines on those sending spam.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act was approved by a vote of 392-5. The move follows the U.S. Senate's approval of its version of the Can-Spam Act in October with a 97-0 vote.

The two bills need to be merged into joint legislation before it is presented to the US president for his approval. It is expected that the Senate will accept the House's wording of the bill and that President George Bush will sign the bill into law before the end of the year.

The vote came after the House Energy and Commerce Committee was able to broker an agreement on Friday to attach a provision in the bill for a "Do-Not-SPAM" registry based on the country's "Do-Not-Call" registry for unwanted and unsolicited telemarketing telephone calls, according to the committee's chairman, Representative Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican.

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft, praised the House for its approval of the bill, calling the legislation a critical component in the broader fight against spam. "Microsoft particularly supports the strong enforcement provisions, and the ban on falsifying the origin of e-mail solicitations and illegally obtaining lists of e-mail addresses, both of which will help Internet service providers prosecute spammers," Gates wrote in an article for The Washington Post newspaper.

In contrast, the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), condemned the bill as being weak against marketers and for overriding tougher "opt-in" legislation passed by various states, including California. The "opt-out" method touted by the Can-Spam Act puts the onus on individual users to let companies know that they do not wish to receive spam.

The California law, which is due to take effect 1 January, seeks to prevent e-mail users from getting e-mail advertisements unless they asked to be on the sender's list and would impose stiff fines on senders of unsolicited messages.

The CAUCE also criticised the Can-Spam Act for limiting enforcement "to overworked regulatory and law enforcement agencies, rather than giving consumers legal tools with which to protect their own inboxes."