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DMA's e-Mail Guidelines: Better Late Than Never

February 5, 2002

Now that the Direct Marketing Association has released its new and improved guidelines for commercial e-mail marketers, should consumers be impressed?

After all, the guidelines mandate that members use real return e-mail addresses -- no fake ones -- and that every e-mail contain information about how recipients can "opt-out" of any more unsolicited messages.

Furthermore, the subject line must be clear, honest and not misleading, and there must be offline addresses provided in the e-mail pitch.

Recipients can also request that the marketer not rent, sell, or exchange their e-mail addresses for further solicitation. And the requests should be honored in a timely manner.

It all looks like good common sense stuff, even if the guidelines are built around "opt-out" requirements that put the onus on consumers to take themselves off the lists.

(If the DMA had come out with more stringent "opt-in" guidelines that give consumers a choice of whether to receive marketing e-mail in the first place, or double "opt-in" guidelines for that matter, that would have been big news.)

Some consumer groups such as the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail (, applauded the move, even calling on Congress to follow the DMA's lead and apply those standards to all e-mail marketing legislation.

CAUCE also applauded the DMA guidelines that would revoke the membership of companies that failed to give consumers notice and choice before sending commercial e-mail or before selling, sharing or renting their e-mail addresses to a third party.

Other consumer anti-spam companies such as weren't as impressed, and won't be until the DMA gets behind "opt-in" guidelines.

"Spam with an opt-out is still spam," said Junkbusters President Jason Catlett. (The DMA's) "compliance program is as silly as the Guild of Burglars saying it will expel house thieves who steal from the same home twice."

For many who see the guidelines as introducing at least some "best practices" and higher ethics to the online marketing industry trade group, the latest guidelines fall into the "Better Late Than Never" category.

The DMA was largely expected to issue these guidelines close to three years ago after the so-called Spam Summit in Washington D.C. Back then, it was even close to throwing its support behind "opt-in" guidelines -- which many e-mail marketers call the most effective practice.

But the group backed off, essentially because it felt that unsolicited e-mail is too similar to the time-honored tradition of unsolicited direct mailings -- even if the online version shifts the costs to the consumers (and their ISPs).

While the DMA clings to its approval of "opt-out" guidelines, however, consumer groups are pushing back with the marketers' own tools, such as building databases that block spam networks.

The non-profit Mail Abuse Prevention System's new "Non-confirming Mailing List" (NML), is a good example. The list is a database of IP addresses that send mass spam to e-mail lists without the recipients' permission, which in this case means any e-mail marketer that didn't get permission twice (double opt-in permission).

For frustrated consumers whose time is increasingly swallowed by the work of deploying filtering programs or sorting through junk e-mails, the howl from e-mail marketers about being included and blocked on the "spam blacklist" has been nothing short of delicious.

The DMA guidelines arrive in the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling that effectively upheld stringent anti-spam legislation on the state level -- which could pave the way for more states to follow suit.

The guidelines also arrive as the Federal Trade Commission turns up the heat on deceptive or misleading offers by e-mail marketers, and just days after an industry trade group launched a beta test of a "Trusted Sender" seal of approval. The "Trusted Sender" program would be an encrypted part of a dialogue between marketers and consumers, built on the consumers' permission.

Surely, the DMA is sensing the political winds getting stronger over how to regulate spam and has decided that it is time to act and signal that it can police itself with "best practices."

Better late than never? Or too little too late?

By Erin Joyce. Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune


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