Column: Ahhh, So That's What Spam Is!

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No national consensus exists on a definition of spam. But with some picayune exceptions, usually offered by dweebs with too much time on their hands, most participants in the national spam debate generally define it as unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail, the bulk and commercial parts being up for grabs in some circles.


Then along comes a definition from planet DMA.


"Spam is essentially e-mail that misrepresents an offer or misrepresents the originator, or in some way attempts to confuse or defraud people," DMA president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen said in an appearance on a July 13 spam segment on "CBS Sunday Morning." "The reality is that, in spite of all the trouble that e-mail is causing, Americans and people all over the world ... do respond to e-mail offers, and they often respond to offers for things they didn't even know existed, from people they didn't know existed."


Huh? So the multiple Gevalia coffee spams I get daily aren't spam? And those refinancing and secured-credit-card spams aren't spam, either? Whew! I feel better.


Imagine Wientzen arguing a speeding ticket:


"Well, actually, officer, I wasn't speeding because speeding is driving that attempts to confuse you."


Or how about Wientzen as a poacher:


"Well, actually, game warden, I would be poaching only if I were to lie to you about killing that rhinoceros. But since I'm being truthful, this isn't poaching."


No one is arguing that people don't buy from spam. In fact, just enough idiots buy from spam - it takes only one in half a million - to make it worthwhile for the sloppiest direct marketers in the history of the craft to pollute the channel almost into oblivion.


The only question now is what combination of legislative, economic and technological governors must be applied to e-mail to suffocate these bottom feeders.


And the Direct Marketing Association's clumsy attempt at Orwellian sleight of hand only draws further ridicule to an industry that could use a little good press right now.


Consumers are furious with DMers to the tune of 25 million phone numbers having been signed up for the Federal Trade Commission's national do-not-call list.


Eight pieces of spam legislation are pending in Congress, two of which call for the FTC to establish a similar do-not-e-mail registry.


A dishonest statement such as "Spam is essentially e-mail that misrepresents an offer or misrepresents the originator" can only infuriate consumers further. It begs the question: "Are you that stupid, or do you think I'm that stupid?"


Fortunately, most of the DMA's membership seems to understand that under current conditions, opt-out prospecting is potentially disastrous for e-mail as a marketing medium.


To be fair, the DMA rightly criticizes the idea of a do-not-e-mail list as unworkable because of issues such as offshore spammers ignoring it. The DMA is also correct in noting that fraudulent spam is the vast majority of the problem. Moreover, the DMA is right in contending that opt-in legislation giving individuals the right to sue e-mailers would be a market-chilling overshoot.


The hand of government should always be used as lightly as possible. E-mail is in its infancy. Technologists are working to solve the problem. There's a lot of money to be made. And who knows what unforeseen, growth-stunting consequences an opt-in law might have?


But for Wientzen to pop up like a jack-in-the-box in a debate that's been taking place for years and say with a straight face that spam is only fraudulent e-mail tells everyone that the DMA refuses to have an honest discussion and is not to be taken seriously in this matter.


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