Lawmaker to AOL: You've got mail

A California bill would force companies that mail unsolicited CDs or DVDs to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for returns.

Jim Hu
Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
3 min read
Given up figuring out what to do with those America Online CD-ROMs clogging up your mailbox? A California lawmaker has a plan.

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) recently introduced a bill that would require companies that mail CDs or DVDs in unsolicited bulk to include self-addressed, stamped envelopes. That would easily allow people who don't want to receive another offer for 1,000 free minutes of AOL, for instance, to mail the CD back to the company or to a processing plant that recycles CDs.

Hancock claims that the bill will help address environmental fallout from a common marketing practice. Forcing companies to foot the costs of sending back unwanted CDs could reduce landfill waste and preserve resources.

"This bill will take care of a growing problem of hundreds of millions of CDs mailed out unsolicited," Hancock said in a telephone interview. The manufacturers "use increasingly scarce and expensive petroleum. The CDs then last up to 400 years in a landfill and, in fact, they can be reused."

The California State Assembly will hear arguments on Monday.

Hancock admitted that nonprofits could take advantage of their exempt status from the bill and mail CDs or DVDs in bulk. But she said the likelihood was slim. She said the current bill deals only with the existing practices of for-profit corporations.

Coming from Berkeley, a well-known hippie haven, the effort might be easy to write off as a long shot. But the bill could get a receptive hearing, coming as it does amid an unprecedented government-led backlash against wasteful and invasive marketing practices. Last December, President Bush signed into law the nation's first federal antispam bill. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has pressed forward with the national Do Not Call list, which is aimed at telemarketers.

If passed, Hancock's bill will strike at the heart of AOL's longstanding practice of distributing millions of discs to gain new customers. The online giant is known for flooding mail boxes, cereal boxes and magazine inserts with free discs in hopes of adding new subscribers. While annoying to many, the "carpet bombing" strategy has helped the company beat out rivals to become the world's largest Internet service.

AOL is no stranger to its notoriety. Last year, the company aired a self-deprecating commercial starring Jerry Stiller and Snoop Dogg. Stiller uses a new AOL 9.0 disc to complete a gigantic sculpture of a tropical fish made out of AOL CDs.

Not surprisingly, AOL objected to the proposed law, claiming that it would do more harm than good. Faced with greater direct-marketing costs, businesses would resort to making up the difference through other means, like higher-priced products, the company said.

"The bill, as it's being presented, would have untold consequences on consumers and small to medium-sized businesses in California and elsewhere," said AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham. "It would be unduly prohibitive, in terms of potentially increasing the cost of products and services in California."

Graham added that the bill offers a vague definition of what is considered solicited and unsolicited disc mailings. That gray area could affect other industries, such as Hollywood, which sends out promotions for its upcoming DVD releases, he said.

Still, AOL's tactics continue to raise ire from people who are sick of receiving unwanted discs. In 2001, a group called NoMoreAOLCDs.com, based in El Cerrito, which borders Berkeley, sparked an online campaign to collect 1 million AOL discs and dump the load on the company's Dulles, Va., campus. So far, the group has collected only 278,000 CDs.

Like Hancock, NoMoreAOLCDs.com has a strong environmental stance as its main rationale for its campaign.

"We think the creation of physical media that takes so much effort to break down seems silly to us, at this point," said Jim McKenna, the group's founder.