Jul 282005

Beyond CAN-SPAM: The Nightmare Continues

Beyond CAN-SPAM:  The Nightmare Continues

Turn back the clock to the end of 2003.  A bunch of states had recently passed their own anti-spam bills, and California had just passed the then-notorious SB186.  Commercial emailers were freaking out because compliance with a patchwork of state laws for email is nearly impossible given the nature of email and given the differences between the laws.  The reult of the freakout was an expedited, and decent, though far from perfect, federal law called CAN-SPAM which, among other things, preempted most of the individual state laws under the interstate commerce clause.  Most of us noted that the federal government had never worked so swiftly in recent memory.

Now it’s mid-2005, and a new cycle of state email legislation craziness is underway, this time with Michigan and Utah in the lead.  Once again, the legislation is well-intentioned but incredibly impractical.  I haven’t heard an appropriate amount of kicking and screaming about this yet, so let me give it a shot.

The laws themselves are billed as “Child Protection Acts.”  They ban email advertising (and also other electronic forms of advertising, like IM, phone, fax) to minors for things like guns, liquor, gambling, porn, tobacco, and — one of the kickers — “anything else deemed to be harmful to minors or unlawful for minors to purchase.”  The bans are in place even if the child has requested the advertising.  The proposed solution is an email address registry of chidren’s email addresses which would act as a suppression list for mailers, is run by a third party, and costs a $7 CPM per suppression run, per state, based on the size of the input file, not the size of the matches.

Let me start running down the problems here:

1. The laws won’t work comprehensively, as people have to proactively register their addresses with state registries.

2. The laws won’t do squat to prevent international or fraudulent advertisers from hitting children with their ads.

3. People with multi-purpose “family” email addresses will have to make a black-and-white decision about being on the registry.

4. Compliance will be a nightmare.  Since emailers usually don’t have a state tied to an email address, they will have to suppress their entire file against each state’s registry.

5. Charging based on the size of the input file as opposed to the number of matches is ridiculous.  It punishes mailers with large files and is completely divorced from the “value” of the service.

6. The costs are outrageous when you add them up.  A $7 CPM seems low, but multiply it by 12 months (and some people think compliance means more than monthly suppression runs) and now multiply it by at least 2 states — with another 10 or so considering similar legislation, and all of a sudden, a mailer could be paying as much as $1 per name ON THEIR FILE per year.

7. The laws are too vague and potentially too broad.  A law that prevents advertising of anything else deemed to be harmful to minors or unlawful for minors to purchase has some weird and possibly unintended definition consequences.  One example:  apparently, in Michigan, it is illegal to sell cars to minors (odd for a state that includes Detroit and licenses drivers at age 16) — so automobile advertising is a “banned category.”  Another example:  Amazon sells DVDs that are Rated R — does that mean linking to Amazon is now problematic?

8. Anyone can sue — not just state AGs, so look out for a zillion nuisance lawsuits like the old Utah “no popup” law of 2003.

9. The laws may be unconstitutional for any number of reasons, and they may also be in conflict with CAN-SPAM’s supersede clause.

The kicker?  The laws are billed as “Child Protection Laws” — so who the heck is going to stick out their neck and sue the states to force the legality issue?  I’m all for protecting our children…and for eliminating spam for that matter, but I’m sick of governments passing laws with this level of unintended consequences.  Someone ought to make a law about that!

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/JohnGlube/ John Glube

    Your comment that no one wants to “stick their neck out” is insightful.

    As you point out these are “bad laws,” being an indirect tax on commercial e-mail.

    Who will be hurt? The good guys.

    Those who run clean confirmed opt-in e-mailing lists, restricted to people over 18 and who follow best practices.

    But, as the Tax Foundation points out in a recent entry to the Tax Policy Blog titled “Can We Tax The Internet?” when commenting about proposed federal legislation to tax adult web sites, the bigger players will simply move off shore.

    So the ones really hurt are the smaller players, like the micro business owner running a wine shop who relies on her confirmed opt-in mailing list to provide news and generate sales.

    Will these laws stop the tide of unsolicited bulk e-mail containing “prohibited” content hitting children’s e-mail boxes? Nope.

    But worse, as the Utah law acknowledges, the registries are not totally secure.

    So, maybe people need to form a group, call it “e-marketers for a Safer Internet.”

    To do what? Start lobbying Congress for a new and improved federal law to “Stop Spam and Create A Stronger, Safer Internet.”

    The aim? To build on the experience in Australia and the report recently filed by the Canadian Task Force on Spam.

    Why? So, we can establish a legal and social framework that will help ensure long term stability in the market.

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