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A spam-beating Christmas present for everyone

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16th Dec 2003
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As regular readers will know, we’ve been banging on about the misuse of various communications channels for a long time, so new anti-spam legislation in both Europe and the US brings a seasonal warmth to the cockles of our hears.

But before we get into that, Bob Pritchard, CEO of Marketforce One, Inc., is not so sure that we’re right to blame the channels. You may remember an editorial (Is the key to successful CRM excellent customer service?) from October 2002 on Bob’s presentation at a conference in Paris. Well, Bob is still sticking to his guns, and as you can see in his comment on a recent editorial (Building customer trust and loyalty in financial services), his basic premise is still that for consumers, the decision to purchase is an emotional decision, and you need to have a convincing emotional message. In Bob’s immortal words: “Johnson & Johnson 'mother-child relationship' will kick the butt out of any 'we are more absorbent' pitch any day”. Get the full flavour of Bob’s view, by checking his comment on my editorial.

But back to that Christmas present I offered you. It looks like anti-spam legislation will start to address the spam issue on both sides of the Pond. Before we look at the legislation, a quick review of how spam is affecting consumers’ use of email.

25% of people are using e-mail less because they are receiving so much junk, according to US think tank Pew Internet. "People just love e-mail, and it really bothers them that spam is ruining such a good thing," said Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Internet and American Life Project and author of the report. "People resent spam's intrusions. They are angered by its deceptions and they are offended by much of the truly disgusting content." For the survey, the researchers interviewed 1,380 internet users in June. The findings suggest that the recent big increase in junk messages is undermining the popularity of e-mail. The number of unsolicited messages is also affecting how people feel about the net. Just over two-thirds said being online was unpleasant or annoying because of spam. And spam is growing rapidly. A year ago, spam accounted for just 2.3% of all e-mails, according to experts. By May this year, the figure was 55%. In my personal experience, if you’re interested, its now well over 90%.

For some time now, we’ve been putting in our word on the awfulness of spam, most recently in Which channels irritate your customers most? Leading companies in the internet space such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and America Online have stepped up their efforts to stop spam, and now finally governments are beginning to legislate.

Firstly, in the UK, laws (The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulation) banning the sending of unwanted e-mails - spam - came into force on Thursday, 11th December. This regulation makes it a criminal offence to send e-mails or text messages unless the recipient has agreed in advance to accept them. Firms that continue to send junk mail face fines of up to £5,000 and can even be sued by the recipients. If you are in the UK, and wish to make a complaint about a ‘spammer’ you should, in the first instance, contact the Information Commissioner (www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk). The new laws are the UK's interpretation of the requirements of the EU Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications that demands member states do more to combat spam, so similar regulations will be coming (or already have come) into effect in other countries within the E.U.
Most of the legislation's focus is on the rules that try to curb spam, which now accounts for more than half of all e-mail traffic. However, the legislation also imposes new rules on companies that require them to do more to protect web users' privacy. According to WebAbacus, who have researched this area, most top UK websites are breaking these rules. In particular:

  • 24% of companies have no privacy policy
  • 12% of companies have a privacy policy, but no information about cookies
  • 53% have a privacy policy, with information about cookies (might include reference to blocking cookies through a browser)
  • 8% have a privacy policy, with information about cookies and detailed instruction on blocking cookies through a browser
  • However, only 2% of companies are compliant with the requirement to provide a single click opt-out

This implies that UK web-sites have some way to go to bring themselves up to speed with the new regulations, and no doubt the Information Commissioner will slowly tighten up on compliance over the coming years.

On the spamming regulations, the most common complaints are that the maximum fines per incident (£5,000) that the regulations impose are far too low, and that the regulations only apply to spam generated in Europe, whereas the vast majority of spammers are based in the US.

However, things are happening in the US as well. The US Congress has backed a bill that will hit law-breaking spammers with huge fines and jail sentences. The bill passed congress in November and US President George Bush is expected to sign the bill into law by the end of 2003.

The US is setting up an opt-out scheme, which means companies can continue to send mail until people say they don’t want it. However, at least one can opt out of those messages, and pornography messages will be identified as such.

US anti-spam campaigners, are very unhappy with the new law. They wanted spamming to be made completely illegal, and they haven’t got that. Companies are still free to send mass e-mails so long as they follow certain rules.

The practical reality is, however, that regardless of regulation in Europe and the US, spammers can still move offshore, so avoiding any regulation. Despite this, we still believe that these regulations are an excellent Christmas present for us all, as they represent the start of a process of bringing spam under control (and increasing privacy on reputable web-sites) that will eventually bear fruit.

Countries on both sides of the Pond are beginning to realize that collaboration is required. Britain has urged the US to co-operate in the fight against unsolicited e-mail, or spam, playing down the transatlantic differences in legal approaches to the problem. A UK internet envoy visiting Washington said collaboration was improving. UK internet adviser Andrew Pinder met Republican and Democratic senators in Washington on Tuesday, urging them to tighten up anti-spam legislation being considered in Congress. Afterwards he said co-operation between the two countries was improving, notably with respect to child pornography.

For a long time the Internet has remained a regulation-free zone, and secretly most of us were probably rather pleased about that. However, that regulation-free environment has led to the chaos we see in email, and increasingly pop-up messages. I for one will be happy to accept the discipline of some regulation, if it leads to the restoration of the value of the email tool. The trick is to make sure the regulation is not over-intrusive.

As always we’d like to hear your comments on this editorial. Make them below or email me at [email protected]

Regards
Richard Forsyth

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Replies (5)

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By admin
22nd Dec 2003 12:20

The USA laws may make a difference to our inbound spam - since that's where most of it seems to originate. And the EU directive isn't making any difference yet. I haven't noticed any changes, for instance, to the transparency of cookie use on major sites. Which is probably a smart move - this legislation - while well-intentioned - is not well thought through.

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avatar
By admin
12th Jan 2004 22:28

Just as a summary, I set up this e-mail address to access business information sites specifically and have been using it for a little under a year now.

Having taken a Christmas break of around three weeks, I returned to this mail box to discover that I have 20 new e-mails, fifteen of which are spam and can be disregarded without question.

Now, I have anti-spam filters set, which supposedly stop this kind of thing happening. Already I have discovered that they seem to make no difference at all.

Interestingly enough, my casual user e-mail address does not attract the same level of spam that this one gets, even though the sites accessed through it might be considered to have more of a popular culture bias. What on earth does that say about the modern business man in Britain and the USA?

Are we sitting ducks for this kind of cybernetic bombardment?

Thanks (0)
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By admin
22nd Dec 2003 20:22

I receive each day so much spam or better said pornographic emails which are stored in a special folder called "spam". I admit that I can just delete all in one go, but recently they have thrown odd ones in my usual inbox mail and often I opened them without being able to detect beforehand what they are. They are such uninviting sights that I despare of people who have to submit themselves to such a state; but why should I have to get them?
I hope that our state will do something about it and quickly because it just brings me to despare that so much of it is going on. I pitty people with young innocent children who often do not discover in time what is being sent. I am not surprised that our world of today is falling apart in morality, and the crime is prospering and all good old beliefs of decency are gone.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By admin
22nd Dec 2003 12:20

The USA laws may make a difference to our inbound spam - since that's where most of it seems to originate. And the EU directive isn't making any difference yet. I haven't noticed any changes, for instance, to the transparency of cookie use on major sites. Which is probably a smart move - this legislation - while well-intentioned - is not well thought through.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By admin
12th Jan 2004 22:28

Just as a summary, I set up this e-mail address to access business information sites specifically and have been using it for a little under a year now.

Having taken a Christmas break of around three weeks, I returned to this mail box to discover that I have 20 new e-mails, fifteen of which are spam and can be disregarded without question.

Now, I have anti-spam filters set, which supposedly stop this kind of thing happening. Already I have discovered that they seem to make no difference at all.

Interestingly enough, my casual user e-mail address does not attract the same level of spam that this one gets, even though the sites accessed through it might be considered to have more of a popular culture bias. What on earth does that say about the modern business man in Britain and the USA?

Are we sitting ducks for this kind of cybernetic bombardment?

Thanks (0)