Consumers, ISPs and senders all have a role in saving e-mail

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In my last column ("Keep e-mail off death row," July 9), I spoke of how we could kill e-mail, or the "killer app," by failing to solve the spam problem or finding the right balance between e-mail security and legitimate use. Yet I also spoke of ways that outcome could be averted through some new thinking about our response to spam and balancing the scales between security and commerce. I also alluded to the new roles that key stakeholders - consumers, Internet service providers and senders - must play in preserving and enhancing the medium. It's those new roles I want to address here.

Let consumers have a say

While many things have been done in the name of consumers, their direct voice has been largely unheard. We've assumed them to be uninformed, disinterested and needy. So we've devised elaborate proxies, such as spam filters, to decide what e-mail consumers should and should not receive.

However, a recent survey by the Email Sender & Provider Coalition demonstrates that this paternalistic view of consumers is wrong. They're much more savvy managers of their inboxes than previously thought. Consumers are able and willing to play a much more proactive role in sorting out spam if given the right tools. They're desirous of trust tokens (53 percent) to aid in their decision making. They want an ability to unsubscribe (90 percent), and report fraud (80 percent) as well as spam in their interface. And they want to provide feedback to senders on why their e-mail is considered spam (66 percent).

Empowering consumers and letting their voice be heard has game-changing potential in moving us beyond the spam filters, making reputation systems infinitely more effective.

ISPs are not the only gatekeepers

While ISPs should continue to shield consumers from the most dangerous (criminal) forms of spam, responsibilities and tactics should shift when it comes to the second class (junk). ISPs should seek to exit the no-win, censor role they're in today.

Instead, they should focus on empowering consumers with the trust tokens and tools to make their own decisions on whether to receive or not receive e-mail. And the ISPs should convey those decisions back to the senders in clear, unambiguous ways. No more deceptive bounce reasons. No more silent deletions of e-mail without any notice.

In moving beyond spam filters, positive and negative incentives should be directly aligned with what consumers have to say. Senders with positive reputations should be rewarded with favorable access and placement privileges. Those whose e-mail is judged less than stellar, or junk, should bear the consequences until their behavior changes. Of course, there can be no accountability without identity, so ISPs must move to make e-mail authentication mandatory. Ultimately, it should roll up to hold real- world companies accountable for the e-mail they send or sponsor.

Senders must make relevance No. 1

E-mail marketers have plenty of their own challenges to address. Among them is getting their metrics and reporting systems in order so they can make better use of ISP data to improve their practices. But first and foremost, they need to alter a mindset that the low cost of e-mail is somehow an excuse for excessive or irrelevant communication.

E-mail marketers who don't change are likely to discover a very unpleasant truth: Being accountable to consumers does not make e-mail a kinder, gentler place. In fact, given direct control over the e-mail they receive, consumers may be much less forgiving than the ISPs. But that may be a good thing. Faced with being barred from their customers' preferred communication medium, marketers might finally be prompted to make the behavioral change e-mail sorely needs.

In setting the "killer app" free, we must achieve new levels of trust and collaboration between ISPs and senders in finding solutions that meet our divergent interests. Most important, we must empower consumers and abide by their decisions as the final arbiters of how the game is played and who plays or doesn't play. What could be fairer than that?

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