Spamming Wars: USPS to the Rescue?

Back in the 1850s, mail sent from the East Coast or Midwest sometimes took several months to make it by stagecoach to what is now Silicon Valley and environs. Residents of 1850 Los Angeles learned only six weeks after the fact that California had been admitted to the Union. Now you have to think that was a priority message.

To solve this maddening communications problem, a transportation entrepreneur by the name of William H. Russell came up with the idea of the Pony Express. Unfortunately, he couldn’t convince the Congress and its postal service of the day that the plan made sense, so he hooked up with two partners and started the Pony Express as a private business. It began operations in April 1860 and captured everyone’s attention when the first letters were delivered in 10 = days. The speed record was 7 days, 17 hours for delivery of President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration speech in March 1861.

The Pony Express was such a huge success that the government’s postal service hopped on the bandwagon and essentially turned it into part of the national postal service in June 1861. The postal service continued using the Pony Express to deliver mail for another four months, until it was rendered obsolete by the telegraph in October 1861.

Amazing how some things don’t change. Today we have our own version of the Pony Express in the form of email a huge improvement on handwritten letters, which we have come to disparagingly refer to as “snail mail.” Email use has spread as wildly as it has over the last five years in significant measure because of the investment of individual entrepreneurs and private industry. The U.S. Postal Service has remained cautiously on the sidelines, much as it did in the 1850s.

Now that email threatens to supplant snail mail, we learn that the U.S. Postal Service has big plans of its own for email (The Wall Street Journal July 31 edition, not the USPS Web site). Interestingly, for an organization as cautious as the USPS, its plans place it squarely in the middle of the hottest issue now raging on the Internet that of the so-called spamming (the sending of unsolicited emails) wars. The USPS is planning to provide its own email service and to marry email with snail mail to enable direct marketers to coordinate digital and nondigital direct mail programs. The so-called antispammers are already envisioning something akin to the biggest spamming operation in the history of the universe, although the USPS says it is planning “a no-spamming system.”

Before exploring further the USPS role in all of this because it could be huge a few words about terminology and issues. I use the term “so-called” in labeling individuals and organizations because when it comes to spamming, labels can be misleading a little like the labeling of “right to life” suggests that opponents are against life. If you are an antispammer, you must be wonderful, right? After all, who could be for spamming?

But as we are learning, the issue of spamming isn’t a clear-cut one at all. Organizations of individuals against spamming have gone on the offensive, blacklisting organizations accused of spamming. The best known of these antispamming organizations is the Mail Abuse Preventions System LLC, known as MAPS and its blacklist, known as Realtime Blackhole List. Accused spammers placed on the list subsequently discover the penalty: that many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) won’t deliver their email.

The problem with this approach to combating spamming is twofold. First, there’s the matter of how the antispammers define spamming. They insist that organizations not only obtain an individual’s opt-in to receive email (typically via a person’s conscious signup at a web site and agreement to be contacted in the future) but reconfirm the individual’s permission via a follow-up email or visit to a web site. We don’t really know the impact of such a directive. Direct marketers will tell you that as you request more actions from people, response rates decrease significantly. Some consumers say they don’t want to be bothered to reaffirm something they’ve already decided, while others insist that they want to deal only with organizations that are as committed to eliminating spam as the antispammers.

Second, there’s the fact that it’s geeks who are making the decisions here. They have defined spamming and opt-in. Geeks are being allowed by businesspeople to take the initiative at ISPs to shut off the email privileges of anyone on the Realtime Blackhole List. Now mind you, I have nothing against geeks (some of my best friends…), it’s just that they aren’t the people who should be making decisions about an issue with such serious business, political, and ethical implications.

A few of the accused spammers have decided they’re sick and tired of being so accused and aren’t going to take it any more. Harris Interactive Inc. and Yesmail.com have gone to court, accusing the antispammers of vigilante justice. Yesmail actually won a temporary restraining order against MAPS, preventing it from placing Yesmail on the list, before the two sides settled the dispute.

In the meantime, the power of the antispammers grows. One of their crusades involves getting ISPs to prevent “relaying” the sending of email from one ISP using another ISP’s address. This prevents spammers from sending their hated junk mail via dozens of ISPs. (Real spammers take over other people’s SMTP servers to send their junk, and thereby remain a moving target.)

Great, problem solved, say the antispammers. Except that innocents are gunned down in the crossfire. Most of us who have more than one email address (I now count five email addresses, and I don’t think I’m atypical) increasingly discover that we can’t answer email addressed to us at addresses different than the one we’re actually sending from. This creates all kinds of difficulties, including forcing us to continually adjust our return address (quite time-consuming if you’re sending lots of emails). Moreover, it prevents us from contributing to listservs whenever we want, since listservs are keyed to identifying members according to their return email.

The whole spamming issue seems to have mushroomed out of control in key respects, with many innocents increasingly being penalized in the interests of targeting a guilty few. While the antispamming zealots try to keep this a black-and-white issue (you’re for us or against us), the reality is that in between spammers and antispammers are a lot of honest citizens and businesspeople just trying to go about their daily routines of earning a living.

All of which brings me back to the USPS. There is an increasing amount of talk about implementing some kind of legislative solution to the spamming issue. Indeed, Congress is working on legislation requiring labeling of spam and also allowing ISPs to enforce their policies legally. My guess is that this would be a disaster because the email landscape is changing so fast. How would individuals and companies be able to keep up on the policies of each ISP? And by the time the courts finished untangling the court suits that would inevitably result, we’d all likely be broke and have moved on to a different communication technology.

Could the USPS use its new email initiative to be an innovator in this arena? Before you choke from laughter at the suggestion of a government-affiliated entity taking a leadership role, consider the reality that there is a true void in this arena. There is a need for standards that balance everyone’s rights of free and open communication with the necessity of preventing the unethical from abusing and crippling the email system. It would certainly be a leap for a long-time laggard like the USPS. But the opportunity is there. By involving the various parties to set realistic standards, it could catapult itself over the bickering masses of antispammers, ISPs, marketers, and lawyers, to provide a real service much as it did in 1861 when it took over the Pony Express.

(I want to acknowledge the important input on this article of several email experts within my company, Circle.com in particular, Jeff Barry and Paul Baudisch.)

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