Marketers, FBI unite to curb spam

The Direct Marketing Association intends to help the FBI nab spammers--and help preserve its members' ability to send commercial e-mail.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
The Direct Marketing Association intends to help the FBI nab spammers--and help preserve its members' ability to send commercial e-mail.

The association, which has about 47,000 members, confirmed on Friday that it is forming Operation Slam Spam, a group of members and industry leaders who will work with the FBI to identify and prosecute spammers. In recent weeks, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has sent letters to Internet service providers, software makers and marketers, asking them to join the project and donate $65,000 in up-front membership fees.

Louis Mastria, director of public and international affairs at the DMA, said the organization plans to unveil the effort and its participants in September or October.

"Spammers are not only ruining e-mail for consumers, but they're also ruining it for marketers. There's a lot to lose on both sides," Mastria said. "We're working with the FBI at a high level to get spammers."

He would not divulge specifics on how the DMA will aid the FBI's National White Collar Crime Center, but overall, the group will use technology to do the legwork in identifying rogue e-mailers and then pass the information off to federal authorities to prosecute.

The DMA is gunning to jail fraudulent e-mailers at a time when the debate over the scourge of spam has hit a boiling point. Congress is about to consider a handful of antispam bills when it returns to session after Labor Day, and the DMA has lobbied for the most lenient of the lot--those that penalize e-mail with fraudulent content or headers. But some industry veterans say such legislation does not go far enough to protect consumers from unsolicited e-mail and that the DMA is trying to subvert stronger legislation that may hamper its industry.

Mastria cited a survey that showed that roughly 46 million U.S. adults bought products or services in the last year in response to e-mail solicitations, for sales of $7.1 billion. Eleven million of those adults were responding to an unknown advertiser, he said.

Mastria said law enforcement is one leg of a four-legged stool that the DMA supports to fight spam. The others are industry self-regulation, filtering technology and federal legislation.

But before the DMA can gain credibility in its law enforcement effort, it must rectify its image in other areas, some say.

Ian Oxman, vice president of e-mail consulting for Rapp Digital, the interactive arm of direct marketing company Rapp Collins Worldwide, said his company recently severed ties with the DMA over its approach to industry self-regulation. For example, the DMA will not release its e-mail best practices guidelines, which Oxman helped draft with the group's Association of Interactive Marketers (AIM). He said the DMA is not releasing the document, because it set a higher bar for DMA members than current legislation that the organization backs. The guidelines support permission-based e-mail that requires a relationship between the marketer and the consumer before sending e-mail or an "opt in" from the consumer.

"If the DMA comes out and supports AIM's high bar of best practices, Congress will say, 'Why are you wanting to dumb down these laws, when your own members are stating the need for a higher bar?'" Oxman said.

Similarly, the DMA has a long way to go to alter its image in the spam-fighting community.

Anne Mitchell, CEO of the newly formed think tank, Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy, characterized the effort as "laughable" because of the DMA's unwillingness to take a stand on the definition of spam. Robert Wientzen, DMA president, has said spam is only "e-mail that misrepresents an offer or misrepresents the originator--or in some way attempts to confuse or defraud people." But under that definition, unsolicited e-mail from legitimate marketers should not be considered spam.

"They have a big image problem to overcome," Mitchell said.

Still, Mastria countered that the DMA's endorsement of several bills before Congress and its work with the government will help end spam.

"We're not talking about pushing some weak legislation but some with some sharp teeth in it. This will help push that forward," Mastria said.

The New York Times first reported the story.