Experts: Truth and Permission Critical in Spam Battle

If email marketers claim to be sending messages with recipients’ permission, they’d better be able to prove it, said Federal Trade Commission attorney Brian Huseman, speaking at the ClickZ E-Mail Strategies conference in New York on Monday.

Highlighting one of the next battles the FTC plans to take on in the increasingly high-profile battle against spam, Huseman said marketers need proof of permission — information such as the IP address used, the date and time of the sign-up, and the list to which the person was added. If not, they could be subject to legal action for making false claims.

Additionally, Huseman said email that claims to be from one sender, but is actually from another, is also in the FTC’s sights. Marketers using these unscrupulous methods to send email messages could find themselves in trouble with the FTC.

Although spam itself has not yet been outlawed on the federal level, the FTC has tackled the problem by prosecuting people for violating existing consumer protection laws, such as those that require truth in advertising.

Huseman’s comments came as part of a wide-ranging panel discussion about the spam issue and how legitimate email marketers could cope with the problem. While they may be following best practices in their email messaging, legitimate marketers are struggling to distinguish themselves from spammers, both so they may avoid legal action, and so they may gain entry to inboxes at ISPs and enterprises increasingly on guard against spam.

Spam volumes at AOL, for example, have historically been doubling every six weeks, according to panelist Brian Zwit, director of integrity assurance at America Online. According to Zwit, spam now accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all inbound email traffic at AOL. In a recent day, AOL blocked 2.4 billion emails because they were suspected of being spam.

“Your legitimate email is getting lost” Zwit told email marketers, saying read rates on emails on the AOL service had been declining, presumably because of the spam problem. Zwit referred marketers concerned about reaching AOL inboxes to a Web site at postmaster.info.aol.com, where they could learn about AOL’s spam policies.

The chief executive officer of spam filtering service Brightmail, Enrique Salem, echoed Zwit’s sentiments, but pointed the finger at filtering companies that use methods other than those used by his company.

“I think this is the biggest problem that legitimate marketers face,” said Salem. “Filters are beginning to get overzealous…. because some of these filters are getting tuned to use criteria that are not carefully managed, it is getting to be a problem.”

All panelists agreed on the best defense now available to legitimate email marketers: keep careful records and use straightforward sending practices.

For marketers seeking universal standard practices that they could abide by and be certain of delivery, Zwit had bad news: “I don’t know that we’ll ever get there, to be honest with you.”

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