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Anti-Spam Movement Broadens its Mission
By Cathleen E. Santosus

November 29, 2000 - Once upon a time, spam was defined simply as sending unsolicited bulk e-mail for commercial purposes. It was closely associated with pornography, multi-tiered marketing schemes, and other get-rich quick scams. The introduction and popularization of permission-based e-mail marketing lowered the threshold of tolerance for spam and broadened its definition.

For a short while, allowing recipients to easily opt-out was enough to avoid being labeled a spammer and escape the wrath of anti-spam groups like the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS). Debates about opt-in vs. opt-out were all the rage last year. Many permission evangalists and those in the anti-spam community insisted that any e-mail relationship that isn't opt-in is spam. But many marketers rejected this interpretation (some still do), arguing that sending messages not explicitly asked for is OK as long as they are relevant and people can easily opt-out.

Not too long ago, Cliff Kurtzman, CEO of the Tenegra Corporation, defined spam as:
Unsolicited advertisements distributed via e-mail, whether or not they are mailed in mass volume
Unsolicited mass e-mailing, whether commercial or not
Out-of context mail list, newsgroup, or forum posting
Using mail list, newsgroup, or forum postings in a manner that is beyond the volume or frequency that readers have signed up for
Any opt-out mailing, even if opt-out instructions are included

A broad interpretation, indeed. Guess what? The opt-in crowd won. But now MAPS is raising the bar.

The MAPS RBL (Realtime Blackhole List) lists the networks they deem friendly, or at least neutral to spammers who use these networks either to originate or relay spam. MAPS identifies and denies such networks access to the part of the Internet that they control. Thousands of other network owners subscribe to the MAPS' RBL so they too can deny "spammers" access to their network.

Groups and individuals get "blackholed by MAPS:
By sending spam directly to Internet users
By "relaying" or allowing spam, even unwittingly, to be sent through a group's mail server computer
By providing support services to spammers, such as hosting web pages promoted by spam, spam distribution software, or credit card processing for spammers.

MAPS and other anti-spam activists consider spam to be theft of service. The original focus of the RBL when it began operations in mid-1997 was on identifying the sources of dedicated, professional spammers. More recently, it is focusing on unsolicited bulk e-mail from the Fortune 500, claiming it is more important to stop these "legitimate and respected businesses that have stumbled into the spamming business" than it is to challenge UBE promoting multi-level marketing schemes.

Permission marketers were warned at industry conferences to stay in MAPS good graces lest they end up on its RBL. And marketers, keen not to alienate their customers and prospects, put their brand at risk, or depress e-mail campaign ROIs, have, overall, behaved themselves. What's an ambitious, publicity-seeking anti-spam group to do? Why, change the very definition of spam!

Some common e-mail marketing practices that make marketers eligible for listing on the RBL now include:
Directing advertising to a customer before they have given explicit permission to do so
Using an opt-out strategy
Using a mailing list that lacks a subscription confirmation step (double opt-in)

Seeking to impose this definition on the industry and Internet community, MAPS turned their guns toward prominent e-mail marketing players this past summer. First YesMail and then Harris Interactive were listed on the RBL.

In July, filed a complaint in the Northern District Court of Illinois against MAPS. YesMail won a temporary restraining order, but the company and MAPS settled the case before the temporary restraining order was to go into effect.

In its lawsuit, YesMail alleged that MAPS threatened to interfere and shut down its business by announcing its intent to list YesMail as a spammer. YesMail insisted it only sends e-mail to those who have voluntarily registered. MAPS listed YesMail as a spammer because it did not use the double opt-in procedure that MAPS insists upon. Double opt-in requires that e-mail addresses can't be added to a mailing list unless the e-mail user signs up and then later confirms his intention via e-mail.

"Although the goal of ridding the Internet of spammers is perhaps noble, MAPS has gone overboard in its misdirected and overzealous efforts and threatens to cause substantial, irreparable and imminent harm to YesMail."


The following week and MAPS released a joint press release saying they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding, putting the litigation on hold, lifting the temporary restraining order, and delisting YesMail from MAPS' RBL pending further talks between the companies. In essence, agreed to work with MAPS to "clarify optimal practices for the e-mail marketing industry for obtaining consumer permission and protecting against fraudulent registrations." Translation: YesMail gave in, adopted a double opt-in procedure, and validated MAPS' role as self-appointed arbiter of commercial e-mail protocol.

Market research firm Harris Interactive Inc. filed a lawsuit against MAPS and more than a dozen other internet companies and organizations, alleging they were improperly blocking Harris e-mail sent to their survey participants.

After MAPS identified Harris as a "spammer," about a dozen internet companies, including Hotmail, BellSouth, and Qwest Communications, blocked e-mail to about 2.7 million of the 6.6 million users that participate in Harris' polls. Harris claimed that an executive from its competitor, Incon Research Inc., instigated the MAPS action. The company dropped its lawsuits in September after Hotmail and other ISPs agreed to accept its e-mail.

And now MAPS has targeted 24/7 Exactis. MAPS knowingly provokes these lawsuits because it feels they are the best way to win court sanction for its method of combating spam. That method, in a nutshell, is to extort compliance with their rules for sending commercial e-mail under the threat of blacklisting and interference with e-mail deliveries. MAPS has selected to list companies with businesses that are heavily, if not entirely, based on sending and receiving e-mail messages.

It's true that e-mail users overwhelmingly prefer opt-in versus opt-out e-mail (79% vs. 14%, according to IMT Strategies). But I've seen no data that suggests they prefer double opt-in. I am also unaware of any significant, systemic problems with so-called fraudulent registrations.

There are valid arguments for recommending a double opt-in procedure. One could argue, for instance, that it results in a more qualified list. This is particularly valuable for third-party list rentals. However, for in-house lists, a single affirmative opt-in mechanism is more than adequate. The majority of 24/7 Exactis clients use the outsourcer for mailing to their in-house lists.

Let's be clear. MAPS is not a good citizen. The organization is driven not so much by a desire to combat spam - as most reasonable people would define it - but by an insatiable desire to impose its will on the entire internet community. Today they insist on a double opt-in procedure. What what will they insist on tomorrow? Perhaps consensus will emerge in the industry to adopt such a standard, or Congress will pass a law requiring marketers, publishers and other organizations to verify list subscriptions in this manner. But the e-mail marketing industry should not be seeking MAPS' advice on setting industry standards. Why do marketers give MAPS a seat at the table? Simply to appease them because they represent a danger to every individual company using e-mail to market and communicate with customers and prospects, as well as to the industry itself.

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