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Spam: Call to (What?) Industry Action

  |  June 21, 2002   |  Comments

If we can’t agree on opt-in versus opt-out, how will we stop spam?

Everyone talks about spam, like the weather, but nobody’s doing much about it -- certainly not the interactive marketing industry, despite ever more vocal outcries from within and without that an overwhelming deluge of unsolicited commercial email could bring down an industry. This could include you.

Legislators, pundits, the public, and the industry itself keep saying there ought to be some sort of industry body that could shape policy for, regulate, police, lobby for, advise on, and govern email marketing practices. As a marketer, I think that’s a pretty good idea.

My journalistic take is different: Who? What? When? Where? And how?

Industry organizations already exist. Some are active in the antispam arena. Is competition between marketers too intense to get companies aligned and working together? Should marketing organizations that aren’t purely interactive legitimately spearhead this? Is spam a marketing-only issue, or is a broader coalition needed that includes ISPs, consumer advocates, and legislators?

Not as simple as it appears on the surface, is it?

Pete Wellborn, an attorney who dreams of spammers serving 50 to life (after being stripped of their homes and cars), sees no role for marketers in the antispam war. "This must be fought on an individual level by ISPs, litigation, and legislation," he asserts. "I’d like to see a single judgment incurred against a spammer that protects all domain owners and ISPs worldwide against that individual." He cites the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) lobbying efforts as one reason antispam legislation isn’t widespread.

Ben Isaacson, executive director of the DMA’s interactive arm, the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), would beg to differ. Some view any DMA-backed antispam initiative as an interactive version of the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop. AIM has been active within the industry and on Capitol Hill "to help coordinate the interests of companies which have a vested interest in stopping spam," Ben told me. "Marketers... should stop wishing [spam” would go away, and stand up for their rights just as every other industry has done for generations."

AIM hosts the Council for Responsible E-mail (CRE), a body whose activities include education and developing guidelines and best practices. "The CRE is not a closed-door, secret society, but rather an open membership organization with a nominal fee for anyone to participate," says Isaacson. Nevertheless, guidelines that lean more toward opt-out than opt-in, along with the DMA’s acceptance of controversial practices, such as email address append, are distasteful for purists -- and for many marketers.

ClickZ’s (and Bigfoot’s) Al DiGuido is a CRE advocate. "By working proactively with lawmakers, consumer advocates, and ISPs, legitimate, permission-based email marketers can help the email channel remain the most effective and cost-efficient medium. Legitimate email marketers are taking great efforts to respect the privacy of their recipients, often going above and beyond what we see in other channels like direct mail -- where unwanted mail generates more than 4.5 million tons of waste each year."

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), as the one pure-play interactive marketing body, hasn’t yet joined the antispam fray. CEO Greg Stuart gets quite emotional on the subject. "This is a real conflict for me, personally. I see an urgent need and am absolutely convinced something must be done. Other things will fix themselves in due course. This is not one of them. We simply don’t have the resources to do it.

"There’s a process that needs to be started: Get major stakeholders to the table, set priorities, and develop processes to get things fixed. Those with expertise are best at solving the problems. They’re the ones who should be most motivated. Otherwise, legislation will step in."

Unlike some of his colleagues, Stuart believes antispam legislation could potentially hinder the business. He’s concerned legislators won’t move "at business speed" or take into account business interests.

(FTC attorney Jennifer Brennan shares Stuart’s belief that the industry would be a better -- and faster -- self-regulator than the Feds.)

"This is such a huge opportunity for us to do good for our members and good for consumers. Part of our role is to protect consumers’ interest. When consumer trust is violated, then all advertising is harmed. But I don’t know that we can reach out beyond our members," he laments.

Currently, no antispam or any email initiative is on the table at the IAB, a body funded (as Stuart is quick to point out) at one-tenth the level of other media trade associations. "The IAB has significant, major tipping-point projects that can change everything for interactive advertising. Our agenda is based on what our members tell us."

Is fighting spam something legitimate interactive marketers should be concerned with? If yes, do they go it alone as marketers (even if they can’t agree on opt-in versus opt-out) or align with others? Which others? Self-regulation? Legislation? Tariffs on commercial email? Who collects, and how much? Would ISPs accept an industry whitelist of marketers committed to specified guidelines?

Most important: Would any of these measures stop a spammer from blasting billions of users from a third-party relay in China?

If you, ClickZ’s readers, can come up with an actionable plan for fighting spam collectively, as an industry, ClickZ promises to commit energy and resources to the project. We need consensus, plans, and strategy. Tell us what you think can be done. We’ll keep you posted.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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