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Industry group cooks up rules for spam

Complaints about unsolicited commercial email prompt an industry coalition to come up with standards designed to quell consumer concerns and keep regulators at bay.

Complaints about unsolicited commercial email have prompted an industry coalition to come up with standards designed to quell consumer concerns and keep regulators at bay.

Sixteen companies, including online advertisers DoubleClick and 24/7 Media, banded together over the summer to hash out a set of professional standards that they expect to make public at a marketing conference in Boston later this month.

Details of the group's progress were not available, but some members say items being discussed include the manner in which consumers can gain more control over the amount of advertising messages they receive through email.

"I don't think anything can solve the spam problem," said Chris Wolf, president of the newly formed coalition, dubbed the Responsible Electronic Communication Alliance (RECA). "But this will come close to substantially reducing spam through a concerted industry effort."

Spam remains one of the most controversial aspects of the Internet. As complaints from service providers, privacy advocates and consumers grow louder, legislators and regulators have tried to clamp down on the practice. The results of their efforts, however, have been mixed.

For example, a California law aimed at reining in unsolicited bulk email was deemed unconstitutional in June. A Washington law suffered the same fate in March.

But over the summer, federal anti-spam legislation that could place restrictions on email marketers passed a key test in the House Commerce Committee.

And in July, the Federal Trade Commission said it favors a self-policing approach.

The intense interest in cutting back on unwanted email has been noticed by an industry increasingly fearful of consumer backlash.

"Consumers have a Hotmail criticized over spam filter woesvested interested in being left alone," said Peter Arnold, the RECA's director. "The full potential (of email marketing) comes when consumers get the emails they truly want."

How effective these standards will be in solving the problem remains to be seen. The penalty for not complying with the rules is likely to be expulsion from the coalition. In other words, companies will not be able to carry the organization's seal, Wolf said.

Meanwhile, the spam debate is drawing new focus on what, exactly, defines junk email.

Earlier this month, for instance, Microsoft settled a lawsuit brought by market research firm Harris Interactive involving spam filtering. Harris argued that Microsoft's use of a service called Mail Abuse Prevention Systems unfairly blocked legitimate advertising emails to Hotmail clients.

Companies such as DoubleClick have an intense interest in winning the email marketing debate because they say the tool works well--advertisements can be personalized, consumers' preferences can be tracked, and costs are lower than for mailing catalogs or making other sales pitches through the U.S. Postal Service.

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