Spam, the Law, and E-mail Marketers

  |  March 22, 2007   |  Comments

The e-mail infrastructure remains under serious attack.

Everyone knows spam is a problem. Spam now makes up between 70 and 90 percent of all e-mail sent. Most marketers don't understand the full impact of those statistics in the real world. Filters are so effective and statistics so dry that the scale is hard to comprehend.

To put things into perspective, in the past six months the amount of spam arriving at one of our small servers has gone from 4,000 per week to over 200,000. That's not a typo, that's a 50-fold increase in just six months to a server that's been operating for several years. Our other servers are seeing similar increases. If this rate continues, the same machine will receive over 10 million messages a week by the end of the year -- and that's just a single server. Last year, we had to drastically rework how we deal with spam because of the enormous increase in volume. While that's a dramatic amount, it isn't that unusual. Most providers have seen enormous increases in the same timeframe.

Many ISPs and e-mail access providers are in similar situations. Their systems are hanging on by their fingernails, with loads increasing as fast as equipment is added. In short, much of the e-mail infrastructure is under serious attack and is struggling to cope.

Meanwhile, many marketers view anything that restricts their ability to send whatever they desire as something to be fought. At best, blocklists and spam filtering systems are viewed as inconveniences to be evaded and worked around. At worst, they're seen as an illegal restraint on trade to be attacked in the courts. Best practices can be ignored when it's inconvenient, and the law is the minimum that you can get away with.

Certainly, anti-spam systems present huge challenges to marketers. Those challenges are only becoming more severe as the systems become more aggressive due to spammers' increasing inventiveness and tenacity. But our perspective needs to change. Sure, without blocking and filtering marketing messages would be delivered. But they'd also be completely lost in an overwhelming flood of junk.

We saw the same attitude toward CAN-SPAM. While it was being prepared, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) was busy undermining it at marketers' behest. The "one bite at the cherry" concept it championed was about ensuring spam remained legal and the law presented a minimum of inconvenience to marketers. This one chance for effective legislation to outlaw spam and distinguish legitimate e-mail marketing was squandered. The law was hamstrung by short-term self-interest. This was a massive misjudgment for which we're still paying.

Finally, we saw it with e360 suing Spamhaus, an organization that's worked for years to help stem the flood of spam. In addition to running some of the most trusted and respected blocklists in the industry, they've worked with governments, law enforcement agencies, and ISPs to identify, track, and prosecute spammers.

They do all this not with grants from the governments, ISPs, or even e-mail marketers who benefit from their efforts, but as volunteers. This British-based volunteer organization has been sued in an American court by an e-mail marketing company that disagrees with Spamhaus' evaluation of them. The response from most e-mail marketers? A stony silence.

Spamhaus fills an important, even vital, role. They deserve our support. When Innovyx signed on to the amicus brief in support of Spamhaus, the response from other e-mail marketers varied from wishing their companies would do the same to suggestions that supporting Spamhaus was actually harmful to e-mail marketing. Some even asked, "What's in it for us?"

What's in it for us is the survival of e-mail. Poor list hygiene, acceptance of bad practices, refusal to outlaw spam, and failure to support organizations like Spamhaus threaten to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. We must stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution. We must look past getting this specific e-mail delivered to the bigger picture of ensuring e-mail remains a viable medium.

Until next time,


Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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Derek Harding

Derek is the managing director of J-Labs, Javelin Marketing Group's technology skunkworks, a role that draws on his 20 years of experience and leadership in the fields of marketing and technology. A British expatriate based in Seattle, Washington, Derek is perhaps better known as the founder and technologist behind Innovyx, one of the first email service providers later acquired by the Omnicom Group. An industry veteran and thought-leader, Derek is a regular expert author, contributor, conference speaker, and takes an active role in a number of industry and trade groups.

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