Bad Spam, Good Spam: ‘Can Spam’ Changes the Nature of How We Perceive Spam

Did you think that the Can Spam Act was supposed to cut down on the amount of spam we get? Well, it hasn’t . . . and it won’t. Of course, we have seen a relatively few instances of a really virulent spammer or two going to jail, pending appeals. But as a professional association executive who is responsible for a lot of e-mails getting sent out each week, I recently had my eyes opened about the true intent of the Can Spam Act.

You’ve probably heard this before, I had, but I had not consciously connected with its real meaning until the last half-year: The primary intent of the Can Spam Act was to legitimize bulk commercial entities by those who market goods and services for ‘mainstream’ companies. All those times that some of us argued, “Well, yeah, but the really bad spammers will just go offshore,” were heard, but we didn’t matter, because that was ancillary to the bill’s purpose.

As I write this with a sort of negative slant, I feel the same kind of tension that I feel when the Bush Administration d'es another one of its economic dance steps which widen the gap between rich and poor. Even though I oppose most Bush Administration economic policies, my household income is high enough that we end up on the side that actually benefits most of the time. That creates some tension for me.

The same holds true with regard to the Can Spam Act. In my primary ‘day job’ working for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), we actually end up in the position of being able to send more mass e-mails to more people than we ever dared to do before, thanks to the Can Spam Act. Yet at the same time, spam makes up more than 80 percent of the 1,000+ messages I receive each day.

How I Came to Understand the True Impact on the Can Spam Act on My Work

Implementation of the act has been delayed for nonprofit and other associations until Feb. 28, 2005. All of us in the ‘association world’ have been involved in a series of ‘waves” of emotion as one deadline after another passed and we waited to hear whether or not the special relationship between our organizations and those who are our members would gain a special place in the set of rules about who and who can’t or can send ‘commercial’ e-mail to whom.

When the final rules came down in December, we initially thought we’d lost. It was determined that we have to follow the same rules as anyone else, even with our own members, so the professional association of professional association staffers – the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) scheduled what is now its best-ever-attended audiocast – about what we need to know to go forth with sending e-mail messages to members, constituents, and others.

To our surprise (Well, it wasn’t completely a surprise to me, I had been reading up on it and thought that we would get this outcome, but it was nice to have my understanding confirmed.), it became evident that while there are a few parts of Can Spam that impose a burden on us, by and large it gives us permission to send more things to more people.

What’s the negative part for a professional association? (And maybe for an alumni association!) Well, the orneriest rule is that if someone, even a member who pays dues, responds to a ‘commercial’ e-mail message and asks to be removed from our lists, then we must– we can’t even give her or him an option–make sure that any published membership directories (print or electronic) do not have his or her e-mail address in them. I find that a bit strange, but it is one rule that was clearly confirmed in the audiocast.

What’s the best part? Well, we can buy all the e-mail lists we want, wherever we get them, and send people unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail as much as we want as long as (a) it’s clear that a commercial message has a commercial message, (b) we include full contact information in the message, and (c) we include an Internet-based ‘opt-out’ link or mechanism in the message. That means, for example, that we can purchase from one of the companies that compile such things, lists of e-mail addresses of–for example–CIOs at higher education institutions, and send them e-mail until they each, individually, ask us to stop.

The really cool thing about this is that it is synergistic with something I have recently noticed about spam; that is, there is so much really bad spam–cheap mortgages, dates with lonely wives, phishing expeditions purporting to be legitimate financial institutions–that what would have been objectionable spam to most of us as few as five years ago is now received, in my in box at least, with a sigh of relief. At least, in those last 200 messages there was something with some limited value to me, whether I asked for it or not.

So, the bottom line for my employer is that we can buy e-mail lists and send out notices about our new books, our regional and international conference, and the like, without concern about whether or not we are conducting illegal spamming under the Can Spam Act. (As long as we follow those few rules and maintain a good opt-out list.) Better, when we send out a notice for a new book that is clearly of interest to many people on campus: A Non-Architect’s Guide to Major Capital Projects, is the latest, even people whose e-mail addresses we purchased are often pleased to receive the e-mail message and they may (often do) turn around and buy the new book. Our message, which was clearly spam half a decade ago, is now not perceived as such by most recipients. (And our statistics bear this out–if we send an unsolicited e-mail message to a selected group of 8,000 people who have not asked to hear from us previously, we tend to get back only one or two opt-out requests. I find that amazing.

If I had room here, or could write with enough clarity, I would wax philosophical at this point about how the Can Spam Act distinguishes between commercial messages (clearly selling something) and transactional messages (delivering something that is due to a purchase or to a dues-paying member according to their membership status). We don’t have to worry at all about the Can Spam Act with regard to messages we can deem and support as ‘transactional’ in nature.

The most mysterious thing to me is how the entire act d'esn’t even address messages which might be outside this dichotomy of commercial/transactional. For example, take this newsletter you got from Campus Technology–IT Trends. If you had not opted-in (subscribed) and we stripped the advertisements out of it entirely, apparently we could send just the factual and knowledge content to as many people we wanted, as often as we wanted, including you– and it would not even be within the parameters of the universe of e-mail messages, according to Can Spam.

So, one way to look at it is the percentage of unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail messages that you get which have actual, real, potentially useful, non-fraudulent content might be about to increase. It certainly will from me! But I see no sign of an overall reduction in the total numbers of spam messages. They are at this point in time apparently inexhaustible and unstoppable. But at least unsolicited commercial bulk e-mail messages ‘mainstream’ organizations can now be legally sent. How d'es that make you feel?

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