Ad World Is Trying To Spoil Spam

February 27, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — If Congress hadn’t created an anti-spam bill, the $17.5 billion that consumers spend each year responding to legitimate commercial e-mails could have vanished into cyberspace.

That was the major reason why the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers, and the Direct Marketing Association urged Congress to pass a national spam law last November.

President George Bush signed the bill into law on Dec. 15.

The three organizations — which represent almost all of the nation’s advertising industry — view the Internet as an extraordinarily important marketplace. And they see those who try to disrupt Internet commerce by flooding computer systems with waves of unwanted, and sometimes virus-laden, messages as cowardly criminals that need to be punished.

But the trio is also realistic.

They don’t see the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 as the definitive cure-all for what ails the $138 billion virtual marketplace, as enforcing it will be difficult. Still, the business organizations feel the law is a good start that is headed in the right direction.

“We thought it was an important and key step to create a national regulatory framework for electronic marketing. And without a national regulatory framework, electronic marketing was certain to die,” said Dan Jaffe, spokesman for the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA).

“We just could not have 37 states with inconsistent laws regulating in this area because honest businesses would be violating some state’s or other’s law. That can’t happen if you want to have a healthy marketplace,” he added.

Jaffe said the AAAA didn’t think the law was the “single silver bullet” that would take out the illegal spammers, many of whom he said are “hardcore criminals” intent on taking over other people’s computers to send billions of messages every day.

But he noted that the law does give regulatory agencies and Internet service providers more clout to track down such spammers.

The CAN-SPAM Act applies to all commercial e-mails, including the business-to-business type, and requires every message to contain an opt-out option, a functioning return address, a notice that the message is an ad or solicitation, and a valid physical postal address of the sender.

Among the things that the law prohibits are using someone else’s computer to relay messages for the purpose of disguising the origin of the e-mail, and harvesting e-mail addresses without prior authorization.

The law also bans sending misleading information and using deceptive headings.

But the opt-out feature of the law gives flexibility to firms with multiple divisions or brands. For instance, if a consumer doesn’t want to receive e-mails from one brand, the company’s other divisions can still communicate electronically with that consumer.

“Now we’ve got to hunt down the spammers, and it’s not going to be easy,” said Jaffe.

Jaffe readily admitted that spammers are technologically sophisticated and are willing to use other people’s property to hide their identities.

He noted some are overseas and difficult to locate. But at the same time, if a spammer is caught, a conviction is more likely because the violations are now defined. The penalties are stiffer, too.

Congress gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to enforce the act and that agency is putting together the methods it will use to track down these criminals. But the FTC isn’t patrolling cyber space as a lone ranger.

“The Direct Marketing Association is working with the FBI and trying to fund some of their projects to see that there are more people as enforcers. That is how important the business community sees this,” said Jaffe.

But one method the AAAA doesn’t think will work is creating a no-spam registry. So far, the FTC hasn’t been fond of creating one, either. Jaffe said all the registry would do is keep honest advertisers from reaching consumers. Besides, these companies will give consumers the option to not receive ads from them.

“If someone lives in an apartment and they receive a message about patio chairs, they’re not going to want to see that any more. But (the advertisers) want to know that, too. That will be very helpful on both the business side and the consumer side,” he said.

“We want our ads to be welcomed, not found to be useless.”

Prior to the law, the three ad organizations set up guidelines that distinguished their members’ actions from those of spammers.

“We think this is an extraordinary, important marketplace. We have already seen major household names grow from being on the Internet. Without it, there never would have been a company like Amazon,” said Jaffe.

“So if you want competition, if you want all these advantages, you have to have this electronic marketplace. We all have an interest in taking care of this problem.”

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