- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

Legitimate e-mail marketers say consumer disgust toward spam is triggering a push against any form of unsolicited e-mail advertising.

At a conference sponsored by the International Association of Privacy Professionals last week, marketers said they are moving toward a system in which all e-mail advertisements will be sent only to those who ask for them, to distinguish their e-mails from the unwanted, often deceptive messages known as spam.

Spam costs businesses billions of dollars in services and lost productivity, technology analysts have said. More than half of all e-mail is unsolicited advertising, and as much as 90 percent of that has some form of deceptive claim or is sent by someone who has made an effort to hide his or her identity.

Legitimate marketers largely responsible for the remaining 10 percent of unsolicited e-mail have come under fire from critics of spam who argue that advertisements should be sent only to those who ask for them.

Many marketers have been labeled as spammers and placed on “blocklists” used by Internet providers to determine which messages they will refuse to accept. Further complicating matters, California has passed a law that prohibits unsolicited commercial e-mail from being sent in the state or to anyone with a California e-mail address. It takes effect Jan. 1.

Marketers said that while sending unsolicited e-mail advertisements is profitable, it creates too many customer complaints.

“Our customer in-boxes have become a hostile place,” said Bennie Smith, chief privacy officer for Doubleclick, a New York company that sends marketing e-mail on behalf of companies. He said his company has learned to avoid sending unsolicited e-mail and messages that are not targeted to those who want them.

“The harm is that there is an erosion of brand every time we do that,” Mr. Smith said.

Doubleclick said last month that revenue from its e-mail management and delivery service declined from $9.7 million to $9.6 million. The company blamed spam for the decline because it has caused customers to be more reluctant to undertake large e-mail campaigns.

E-mail marketers historically have sent most of their solicitations to people with whom they have business relationships. If those customers decided they did not want the solicitations, they could “opt out” of mailings.

But last week, many marketers said they are considering “opt-in” systems, in which customers must indicate that they wish to receive messages.

“There’s just a reputation cost to being associated with negative messages,” said Lynda Partner, president of Got Marketing, a firm that helps companies including AT&T;, BankOne and Yahoo send out permission-based e-mail advertising.

In the last year, marketers and privacy advocates have developed and promoted systems that will help distinguish legitimate marketers from spammers. Several proposals involve certifications for marketers who follow a set of industry practices. Such changes probably will keep marketers in compliance with most spam regulations at the state level. But marketers said that if California’s law — the first to place a ban on unsolicited e-mail — is enacted elsewhere, they may be forced to regulate themselves even more strictly.

One piece of federal legislation passed by the Senate calls for the Federal Trade Commission to explore the potential of a national “do not e-mail” registry similar to the “do not call” list designed to fend off unwanted telemarketing.

“A year ago, I would not have believed we would need to go to an opt-in system,” said Fran Maier, executive director of TRUSTe, a nonprofit group that has championed a certification system for e-mail marketers. “We’re going to an opt-in standard sooner rather than later.”

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