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DM News: E-Mail Has Different Privacy Rules

October 4, 2000

Many of us who are immigrants to the Internet from the old world of broadcast, print and postal mail advertising have found this new land to be a mixture of almost-familiar landmarks, strange new things and, occasionally, some startlingly hostile and dangerous "natives."

One of the more difficult items for some to understand and adapt to has been an apparent fixation by many individuals on "permission" in the field of e-mail advertising. More than one company attempting to use e-mail for its advertising has found itself under attack for sending the ads without permission, sometimes to the point of having its Internet access interrupted while the issues get sorted out.

At first glance, it would seem that permission is a new and puzzling issue unique to the Internet environment. Some reflection on the "real" world, however, shows that permission has always been an important fact of life, but on the Internet it takes a new form.

Consider a paper mail campaign. A common approach is to prepare the campaign material, buy or rent an appropriately targeted mailing list and hire a bulk mailing house to send the material if the mailing facilities do not exist inhouse.

So, where’s the "permission" in this scenario? After all, many of the recipients of the mailing will consider it junk and throw it away, but none of them will call your landlord and try to get your mailroom padlocked because you sent them an unwanted ad.

Likewise, where does permission enter into, say, a radio media buy for a 30-second spot in five strategically chosen drive-time slots per weekday on a popular local radio station? Or a display ad in a newspaper? Who ever asks the readers or listeners before the ads go out?

In the paper mail campaign, permission takes the form of a mark on each envelope that says, "U.S. Postage Paid." By law, in the United States, you must have the permission of the U.S. Postal Service before your material can be placed in a postal patron’s mailbox, and that permission is obtained by giving money to the USPS.

For the other advertising types, the permission needed to put the ad before the public’s eyes or ears is obtained from the owners of the broadcasting or publishing facility that will carry the ad, usually involving the payment of currency by the advertiser to the owners of the advertising venue.

On the Internet, this simplicity almost completely disappears. Instead of a single entity with which to negotiate, such as the USPS, there are literally millions of separate, independent, privately owned computers connected to an international network. And before an advertiser may safely and ethically use these private facilities for its business benefit, the permission of the owners must be obtained.

When a company buys Internet connectivity from a service provider, it has purchased the provider’s permission to use the provider’s equipment and its network connections to other providers, but that is all. The rest of the path that an e-mail message takes from the sender’s servers to the recipient’s mailbox crosses privately owned networks and equipment that the advertiser does not and cannot subsidize in any way. The message gets a free ride that uses bandwidth, disk space and computer time. The advertiser’s e-mail is allowed to pass through these networks because of a traditional courtesy arrangement among the owners of the various systems — "if you carry my traffic, I will carry yours."

Eventually the message arrives at an individual’s e-mail box. If the addressee is an average U.S. Internet service provider customer, that e-mail box exists because its owner pays a monthly fee to his provider. A portion of that fee enables the provider to maintain the equipment and network connections that make e-mail a reality for that individual. If this person is in an area where dialing in to an ISP is not a free local call (such as in much of Europe and many rural areas of the United States), then the message will arrive "postage due," in that it will cost the recipient money to retrieve it.

The individual recipient will rightly regard his e-mail account as private property and will object if some previously unknown and uninvited commercial enterprise begins to use that property as a free advertising venue. Some recipients will take action to end this unpaid use of private property either by looking for a means to block all communication from the advertiser or by attempting to persuade the advertiser’s providers to terminate the advertiser’s network services.

Just as the real-world advertiser must obtain the appropriate permissions before using non-Internet advertising venues, the ethical Internet advertiser must somehow obtain the permission of the owner of each advertising venue — each individual e-mail account — that it seeks to use. With e-mail, as with postal mailings, one can easily buy a mailing list. Unfortunately, one cannot simply purchase permission to send e-mail to the addresses on the list because that belongs to the individual account owners, not to the list broker or some other single entity.

Here then is a challenge that requires effort and ingenuity: obtaining (and keeping) the active and informed consent of thousands or millions of individual mailbox owners.

In this new world, competitive advantage will belong to the advertiser that discovers new ways of becoming an invited and welcome guest in the inbox, rather than an unwanted intruder.

Michael Rathbun, Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC


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