Turn On, Tune In, Opt Out

Not long after we wrote here about the Mail Abuse Prevention System, or MAPS, did news surface of a lawsuit against MAPS by Harris Interactive, a research group responsible for the Harris Polls. Because major email providers, such as AOL and Hotmail, use MAPS to prevent floods of spam on their vast networks, the plaintiffs suggested that this constituted vigilante censorship and obstruction of legitimate business. “Self-appointed groups such as MAPS cannot continue to dictate the standards that affect hundreds of millions of people and billions of dollars of commerce,” said Harris Interactive CEO Gordon S. Black.

So what is MAPS, and what are its unspeakable, sinister causes?

MAPS is a nonprofit organization that believes commercial mailing lists should be consensual. They support their cause by maintaining and publishing a database of domains for businesses that do not meet their public definition of consensual. Mail servers around the Internet have the option to query this database to match the domains of incoming mail with those of published offenders. If a domain matches, the mail server can be configured to take a specified action with the email, such as blocking it.

Businesses that thrive on commercial email, such as Harris Interactive, object that MAPS has no right to regulate email practices. Yet MAPS does no such thing. Use of MAPS is entirely voluntary on the part of the email provider. Furthermore, mail servers can optionally implement MAPS to provide spam gray-listing – or the tagging of suspect email (rather than blocking it outright) where end users can filter or automatically file it as they please.

MAPS simply provides a highly desirable problem-solving service where the direct email marketing industry has utterly failed to provide a viable alternative.

You May Already Be a Subscriber

Businesses object most to the MAPS policy regarding subscriptions. According to MAPS, mailing list subscribers must not only opt in, but they must also provide a verification of their subscription request. This extra step ensures that the email address in the request wasn’t a typo or a forgery. Commonly mislabeled “double opt-in,” such verification can be achieved by a click-through to a web site, for example, and not just a follow-up email reply.

Yet the double opt-in argument against MAPS is a red herring. Subscriber remorse – when a user changes his or her mind about subscribing after having had time to think about it – does happen. But for all the people we know who have subscribed to these lists, none of them abandoned the subscription process partway through. And should subscribers change their minds, they’re an unwilling audience and should be removed from the list.

Yet indecisive subscribers are nothing compared to the number of unwilling victims of mistyped email addresses and email identity forgeries. Having common user names on different ISP and free email accounts, Greg regularly receives job offers, requests for kinky poetry, declarations of love from out-of-state coeds, and angry tirades from would-be sisters. While they certainly keep his inbox interesting, none of them reach their intended recipient because the sender either uses the wrong domain or omits a character in the user name.

Those are the accidents. Greg also receives numerous registration confirmation mailings from affiliate programs, dating services, gaming sites, etc., because the registrant apparently forged an email address during registration. The made-up email address just happens to be real – and Greg’s. We pity the poor soul with the legitimate claim to bob@aol.com.

Bob and Greg are not alone. A recent Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that Internet users commonly falsify web site registration information with fake names and secondary, if not made-up, email addresses to preserve privacy and avoid spam.

Even Greg confesses to occasionally use a trick from the movie “The Blues Brothers”: registering Wrigley Field as his home address when he isn’t sure of a given site’s intentions. (Registration databases containing “1060 W. Addison” in Chicago beware!) And with the proliferation of free email accounts, it’s easier than ever for users to create disposable email identities.

Without fully verified opt-in checks, victims of these behaviors will continue to be presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Direct Snail Mail Marketing Isn’t Free Either

Another argument against fully verified opt-in is that it is more expensive to implement and operate. However, this one-sided view completely ignores the expense borne by the network and email providers who foot the bill for someone else’s spam.

To solve the spam dilemma, the Direct Marketing Association recommended an opt-out list that consumers could state their preferences on, but this is like trusting a cigarette company to make nicotine gum. A recent article in the Boston Globe took the nonchalant attitude of, “If I don’t like it, I can delete it – so what’s the big deal?” Yet both conclusions are trite for anyone who isn’t supporting thousands, if not millions, of mailboxes with the additional disk space, bandwidth, and technician time required to handle large volumes of spam.

The Internet’s networks, servers, and mailboxes are private property – not public utilities. If your private property was being taxed by uninvited spam just this side of the I LOVE YOU virus, and your customers often complained and held you responsible for unwanted junk mail, you’d be a fool not to implement something like MAPS.

To give you some sociological sense of how much Internet system abuse impacts bandwidth, disk space, and staff, free home page provider Xoom once employed five full-time “whackers.” Their job was to monitor the service for users who violated their terms of service – e.g., people who posted pirated software, pornography, etc. Xoom determined that the cost savings in reclaimed bandwidth and disk space alone more than paid for the whackers’ salaries.

While free home pages are not the same as email, email’s abuse is much more widespread. (Unfortunately, few ISPs are willing to go public with financial data on just how bad their spam problems are.)

So who should bear the brunt of the costs for direct email marketing here? Those who stand to profit from it, or those who stand to lose the most from abuse?

Make Friends, Influence Advertisers

The single opt-in approach also costs the email marketer – in significant complaint-handling expenses for the unwilling and damage to their public image once they’re lumped in with thousands of other unscrupulous spammers. In some cases, entire sites have been shut down by the volume of outrage in response to a single email message.

For the mailing list owner concerned about subscriber counts when courting potential advertisers, fully verified opt-in means deflating the numbers to exclude inadvertent and bogus sign-ups. However, advertisers should, and will, demand a higher level of qualified audience accountability. The fully verified opt-in approach can represent a sort of Good Housekeeping seal to reassure the advertiser. For the subscriber, it provides an additional measure of confidence in the mailing lists’ commitment to user privacy and consent.

Unfortunately for legitimate direct email marketers, we must presume that there will always be schemers who won’t follow the rules. Web crawlers that mine web pages for email addresses and businesses that purvey their subscriber lists without consent are not going away. If the Gordon Blacks of the world choose to do nothing about the spam problem, they should hardly be surprised when someone else, like MAPS, tries something without them.

Finally recognizing that deep-sea fishing with dynamite yields a poor return on investment, many dot-coms have cancelled their big-media advertising budgets in favor of more modest direct marketing approaches – making email marketing more popular than ever. But in order to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate, policies and practices are necessary to preserve the integrity of the industry. In the end, legitimate direct email marketers should be leveraging something like MAPS to clean up the reputation of their industry and to establish their business within a more respectable class.

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