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Opposed groups agree on antispam strategy

A legislative strategy to rid the Net of unwanted commercial email is hammered out by an unlikely alliance of direct marketers and antispam activists.

    A legislative strategy to rid the Net of unwanted commercial email was hammered out Friday by an unlikely alliance of direct marketers and antispam activists.

    The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) and a broad antispam faction met for more than five hours last week to reach a consensus on a plan of action for curbing fraudulent bulk email offers and giving consumers control over the email solicitations they receive. Among the activists were the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), Rodney Joffe, proprietor of the SAFEeps email preference service; and Paul Vixie, founder of the Mail Abuse Prevention System.

    During the meeting, all parties agreed that the best policy is to let consumers "opt-in" or choose to receive email advertisements.

    The DMA also agreed to fund a global database, to be administered by an objective third party, that would let Net users submit their email addresses if they don't want to receive spam. In addition, the DMA and antispam groups will call for legislation requiring unsolicited commercial emailers to purge any names from their list that are in the proposed "no spam" database.

    The legislative proposal would create an environment that starkly contrasts the current nature of unsolicited email marketing.

    Active Net users typically receive spam every day. The junk mail often originates from fake email addresses, making it hard for consumers to reply with a request to be removed from the bulk mailing list. On the other hand, many legitimate online businesses use email as a way to communicate with their customer base, for example to offer special deals or updates.

    Spam is a particularly contentious Net issue, but federal lawmakers failed to come up with a solution during the last session of Congress despite several attempts. In the meantime, online access providers have won lawsuits against spammers who clog their networks, but, aside from the advent of some effective filtering technologies, spam continues to plague many Netizens.

    In the past, groups like CAUCE have called for an outright ban on spam. But the DMA and antispam groups alike see Friday's proposal as good compromise: marketers will be able to send offers to people who want them, but consumers will retain the power to get off mailing lists. The final details of the plan will be worked out in the coming months, and the groups hope to have a lawmaker introduce legislation based on the proposal during the next session of Congress.

    "This is a significant step forward. Legitimate marketers will spam in a way that is consumer-friendly," said Ray Everett-Church, general counsel to CAUCE. "We will support legislation targeted at the use of false information in commercial email, such as forged headers, fake return address--those sorts of practices--and the DMA acknowledges that opt-in approaches are the most successful."

    The legislative proposal being drafted by the DMA and antispam groups would prohibit use of false return emails addresses or headers.

    Spammers often "spoof" return addresses with the domain names of larger companies, a practice that not only makes those larger companies look bad in the eyes of their customers, but also can result in the larger firm's network getting clogged up with returned email. Spoofing also makes it impossible for consumers to request removal from a spam list. California was just one state to pass a law this year to curb spoofing.

    "We have long seen the efficacy of opt-in programs and are encouraged by their adoption by many marketers," DMA president Robert Wientzen said in a statement. "Furthermore, we continue to believe that legislation should not prohibit otherwise legal and non-abusive communication."

    With 4,400 member companies, the DMA is the largest trade association in its arena. Its endorsement of opt-in email marketing likely will have a huge influence on the Net. Still, when it comes to shady offers made via spam, consumers still may have to turn to regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission for relief.