MAPS Again At Odds with E-Mail Firms

  |  January 25, 2002   |  Comments

A new anti-spam database -- and continued disagreement over the definition of "permission" --could spell more messy fights with major players in online direct marketing.

Anti-spam organization MAPS is taking another step to help consumers avoid unwanted email -- but the move is likely to heighten tensions with Web marketers.

The Redwood City, Calif.-based non-profit, best known for its Realtime Blackhole List of suspected spamming or spam-relaying servers, is introducing a new database designed to let consumers report the IP addresses of unscrupulous email marketers. Using that information, subscribers of that new database can block the reported spammers.

Like the Realtime Blackhole List, MAPS' new database, dubbed the Non-conforming Mailing List, is expected to be used by businesses and ISPs to weed out incoming spam.

The problem, however, stems from the fact that the NML is designed to collect the IP addresses of email senders that "haven't asked for permission." To MAPS, "permission" means "double opt-in," a policy that allows email recipients to confirm that they're willing to receive marketing messages, or to have their email address rented, sold or shared.

Yet much of the email marketing industry is predicated on "single opt-in" policies -- which require no confirmation that someone wants to receive marketing messages -- or, more often, "opt-out" policies, which places the onus on recipients to ask to be removed from mailing lists. To many marketers, single opt-in and opt-out policies represent legitimate methods of obtaining sufficient (though tacit, in the case of opt-out) permission for email marketing.

The list ... confirms the existence of email sent to mailing lists without [address] owners' explicit permission, which is a large percentage of the unwanted email that consumers receive," said Anne Mitchell, MAPS' director of legal and public affairs.

As a result, the new NML database could prove as controversial as MAPS' previous efforts to curb spam. In recent years, several industry players including 24/7 Media's Exactis unit (now part of Experian) have challenged MAPS' right to place their servers on its Realtime Blackhole List.

In November 2000, 24/7 Media successfully obtained a temporary restraining order against the non-profit, which had listed Exactis servers on the RBL. The two firms settled a year later, with an arrangement that saw the marketer agreeing to ask for greater confirmation from its list members. In August of last year, MAPS similarly settled a bitter, long-running dispute with online pollster Harris Interactive.

Indeed, the email marketing industry as a whole has also taken steps to safeguard opt-out and opt-in as the dominant forms of consent, establishing associations like the Online Privacy Alliance and the Responsible Electronic Communications Alliance to lobby against government regulation of the space.

Offline marketing heavyweights, too, like the Direct Marketing Association, have routinely weighed in to support opt-out as providing sufficient (albeit, tacit) permission for email marketing.

Still, MAPS asserts that it's not looking for a fight, since email servers are never added to its lists "until it has been proven conclusively that there is a problem," said Susan Tait, MAPS' manager of online operations.

"Our investigators are very thorough. We also remove that IP address as soon as it has been demonstrated to us that the problem has been fixed," she said. "We aren't about spite listings, only about consumer awareness -- in that regard we are not unlike Consumer Reports, or a restaurant reviewer."

Furthermore, Mitchell added that the NML could potentially keep both consumers and marketers happy.

"It allows [marketers] to keep doing their non-verified lists, but people who don't want to receive the email will have the option not to," she said. "In theory, this should allow for peaceful coexistence."

Marketers "should have no problem being listed on places that say they don't do full verification," Mitchell added. "I cannot imagine any of those organization saying publicly that people who don't want that email should have to get it. If you say, 'I'm not going to do full verification,' you should have no problem with us saying, 'I'm going to put you on a list that says [that].' Legally, it seems to be a very supportable system."

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