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Who’s Suppressing Whom?

  |  May 12, 2003   |  Comments

Is an opt-out e-mail database feasible?

I sat quietly at the FTC’s Spam Forum as Sen. Schumer proposed his "Do Not E-Mail List" with "military-style encryption." The concept of this type of database is not original. I’ve personally discussed the pros and (mostly) cons of it for nearly five years.

Every marketer has an opt-out database. Many of these marketers also have a global suppression list that includes bounces, changed email addresses, and negative emails from first- and third-party email campaigns. Responsible emailers want to do everything in their power to remove any email recipients who might not respond or feel comfortable with the message being sent.

The question: Do consumers know this, or do they want a centralized opt-out list?

When the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) launched its e-Mail Preference Service (e-MPS) in 2000, I had some reservations. The main reason was by offering a public opt-out database, the organization by default endorses the concept of unsolicited commercial email (UCE). Since then, the spam epidemic has gotten so bad responsible acquisition marketers want to do everything in their power to remove unresponsive and potentially problematic email from any available suppression lists. In essence, the e-MPS is now a valuable service for those types of companies.

In consideration of Sen. Schumer’s proposal, I’d like to return to my original reservations about an opt-out database and why a proposed government-run list may not be effective.

ISPs Are Still in Control

The main problem is ISPs are not common carriers, as phone companies are. ISPs will still maintain their own blacklists of suspected spammers and will not guarantee delivery of email "cleansed" through a do-not-email list. The status quo of email delivery headaches will continue, even with the extra step of suppression used by responsible acquisition marketers.

However, if the ISPs were to work together with the do-not-email registry and codify "cleansed" email to guarantee delivery, then there would be additional credence to its use. I’ll return to this below.

Spammers Don’t Care About Suppression

It’s a given most spam sent is from offshore servers using harvested email addresses or through dictionary attacks. There’s little a do-not-email database can do about these types of spam.

Sen. Schumer’s proposal includes greater enforcement power for the FTC and other entities to track down violators. However, most spammers are incredibly elusive, and many are offshore. It’s doubtful these spammers will be deterred by enforcement.

More important, the database would have to implement some limitations to shield responsible emailers who make mistakes. It may only provide a slap on the wrist for first-offense violators. In addition, spammers will evade making the same mistake twice simply by changing the names or locations of their businesses.

Consumer Negativity Towards Commercial E-mail May Increase

What will happen when consumers who sign up for the opt-out database get more spam than before? According to a recent survey by Bigfoot Interactive, 57 percent of respondents believe unsubscribing from unwanted email leads to more unwanted email. Consumers are increasingly mistrustful of email marketers, and the opt-out database could further fuel this mistrust.

To launch such a database, an all-out consumer education campaign would necessarily accompany the service. It would help define the differences between permission email and spam.

Military-Style Encryption Can’t Change a Privacy Policy

Marketing data is not easily transferred. To implement the do-not-email database, marketers would be required to upload their lists to be cleansed. To do this, marketers would need to change their privacy policies to include third-party services, which would further weaken both privacy policies and consumer confidence. Most important, marketers have little interest in uploading their data anywhere, particularly to our friends in Washington (who just happen to want to track such activity to detect suspected terrorists).

The Global Suppression List

If the major email broadcasters worked together to create a cooperative suppression list, many of the most frustrated email users could be removed prior to any responsible acquisition campaigns. This concept of a global industry-cooperative suppression list has been discussed for years. It may now deserve serious consideration.

Perhaps this is something the DMA could add to the e-MPS or a data-services company could consider as a value-added service.

The Next Level of Suppression

Following the creation of the global suppression list, the next step is for ISPs to endorse and codify the process. Perhaps one of the certification proposals, such as the Trusted Email Open Standard, could be applied, following list cleansing, to guarantee ethical email usage and delivery.

Rather than clicking a "this is spam" button, consumers could subscribe to the global suppression list through their ISPs. Marketers could then remove that ISP’s subscribers prior to their acquisition campaigns, further guaranteeing email delivery with that ISP.

If the objective is to assist with user-controlled email, a cooperative effort by emailers and ISPs to suppress undesirables is a clear step in the right direction. Certainly, any industry-led initiative would be better than Big Brother’s mandatory solution.

Should there be an opt-out database? Send me your thoughts!

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Ben Isaacson

Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.

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