Keep e-mail off death row

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Here we go again - another trek to our nation's capital for yet another Federal Trade Commission summit on what to do about spam. Will this be another round of speeches, debates and solutions we've all heard before? Or will our industry concede that the "prevention" approach is a conceptual dead end?

Make no mistake: I'm still a big advocate of accountability in e-mail. But we need to invoke some new thinking and redefine the roles of e-mail's key stakeholders.

First, let's remind ourselves what e-mail has become. Its title as the "killer app" is not undeserved. E-mail has become ubiquitous. It's how all of us communicate in our personal and professional lives, and it's the glue that holds e-commerce together. According to Forrester Research, 75 percent of US households are now online and 97 percent of them regularly use e-mail. A MarketingSherpa survey found e-mail to be more popular than postal mail and phone and the preferred way for 64 percent of consumers to receive communications from the companies they do business with.

This is all good news for direct marketers. Yet, we have no room to be smug. Despite its positive adoption stats, e-mail's status as the "killer app" is under assault by abusive practices as well as the measures being taken to contain them.

I see two distinct threats: inviting government regulation through a failure to self-regulate and constraining commerce through failing to balance between the security and legitimate use.

If we allow either to occur, the "killer app" as we know it is dead. So how do we keep the "killer app" off death row?

First, we inject some new thinking into the debate. Second, we redefine the roles of key stakeholders in the e-mail ecosystem - consumers, Internet-service providers and senders - and engage them in a collaborative way to preserve and enhance the medium.

A big part of the new thinking starts with being equally concerned about the vitality of the medium as we are about its security. It's about balancing the scales. "Protection" must be redefined to mean protecting consumers against what's harmful and unwanted as well as protecting their right to receive what's safe and wanted. And we must protect the commercial interests of legitimate companies who depend on e-mail too. We must do these things because a victory over spam that secures the medium but constrains communication and commerce is no victory at all.

The required new thinking also extends to the term "spam" itself. We need to recognize that there are really two classes of spam. First, there's e-mail that's criminal, dangerous and doesn't conform to regulation. Second, there's e-mail that conforms to regulation but doesn't adhere to good practices and is annoying. No one contests that both are spam and undesirable.

While stopping the first class of spam is crucial, applying the same tactics to the second is what puts us on the slippery slope that yields false positives and endangers the medium

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