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Tech Industry

Hitting spam below the belt

Truste Executive Director Fran Maier says it's time for responsible commercial e-mail senders to prove they respect the privilege of online marketing.

    Spam, junk mail, blocking, filtering, deleting, not opening, not checking, not responding. These are the words that describe the current state of e-mail. The killer app is sadly losing its edge for consumers, marketers, Internet service providers and even spammers.

    Spam, conventionally known as unsolicited commercial e-mail, is the No. 1 privacy-related complaint that consumers make to seal and certification program Truste. Nearly half, or 48 percent, of all complaints filed with us are spam-related. Consumers grumble that they are either unable to unsubscribe from e-mail lists or believe that because they shared their e-mail address with a Web site, they are getting unwanted mail.

    And it's only getting worse.

    According to Jupiter Communications, e-mail volume will increase 40-fold by 2005. It is clear to anyone with an e-mail account that much of the volume will be driven by unwanted e-mail. With 59 percent of all e-mail categorized as spam, everyone has a story of frustration--even one FTC commissioner expressed his surprise at the amount he gets at his FTC.gov e-mail address.

    The privilege to market to people via e-mail, even for legitimate commercial e-mail, will be severely restricted if industry doesn't act quickly and decisively. Just earlier this month, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed suit against marketing firm MonsterHut and two of its top executives for sending millions of unsolicited commercial e-mails to consumers.

    Meanwhile, we are seeing increased attention in Washington, D.C., and throughout the United States. For example, the Burns-Wyden-Stevens Can Spam Act, which carries fines of up to $1.5 million, is gaining significant momentum.

    It is time for responsible commercial e-mail senders to prove they respect the privilege of e-mail marketing. Industry needs to establish and agree on the principles of responsible commercial e-mail and how consumers can easily distinguish such messages. If not, businesses will face mounting consumer sentiment that can be summarized with a new version of the oft quoted phrase, "They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore."

    The privilege to market to people via e-mail, even for legitimate commercial e-mail, will be severely restricted if industry doesn't act quickly and decisively.

    Industry needs to adopt a three-tiered solution to address this growing problem: technology, best practices, and third-party oversight.

    First, let's do what we're good at--develop and adopt new technology solutions that are better, cheaper and faster than the ones that exist today. We know we can do this. Filtering software is a prime example of a technology that must be improved to meet consumers' demands. It is in industry's self interest to explore ways to improve or enhance existing e-mail technologies.

    Technology, however robust, is not the panacea. Companies need to adopt best practices. Best practices include providing consumers with easy access to choices regarding the use of their personal information; building customer relationship management systems with privacy controls and contact management protocols that are sensitive to consumer preferences; and educating businesses on the proper uses of e-mail tools.

    And yes, invite third-party oversight. Third-party oversight not only gives a clear signal to the consumer that the company takes privacy seriously, but also provides an additional set of eyes to help the business really understand what it is delivering and asking of the consumer. In the Truste certification process we are able to point out areas to client companies that they just plain missed and guide them toward better practices.

    Our e-mail seal program for responsible commercial e-mail, called Trusted Sender, is the first to test the model of technology married with best practices and third-party oversight. The program ensures that commercial e-mail adheres to a set of principles and program requirements (such as respecting consumer preferences including unsubscribe requests), delivers an endorsement seal to signify the promise, and offers consumers dispute resolution.

    The time is now to save e-mail and define what is responsible commercial e-mail, and the solution must start with industry leaders.

    We also need to recognize that, from the consumer's point of view, the distinction between online and offline is blurred. It's not enough for a credit card company to clean up its e-mail solicitation practices if it's still abusing U.S. mail correspondence or worse--using telemarketing.

    The time is now to save e-mail and define what is responsible commercial e-mail, and the solution must start with industry leaders. Earlier this year, FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson urged industry to create a core group of best practices for e-mail and give consumers the ability to determine what kind of information they receive "to be able to understand the difference between the good guys and the bad guys so that the information that you send them will go to people who really want to see it."

    It's time to take up that challenge.