EDITORIAL: Mail Bomb This

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I am strangely honored to report that my editorial damning anti-spam group Mail Abuse Prevention System LLC moved at least one zealot to fill my e-mail box with spam. How appropriate.

Far from editorializing for spam, I have contended that MAPS' reported demands that certain e-mail list owners -- most notably yesmail.com -- re-opt in entire permission-based databases are unreasonable. Since the process would decimate an ethically and legally created business asset, it would be criminal for an executive to agree to such a demand.

For a quick recap of MAPS' side:

• MAPS contends that since networks are private property, their owners have every right to determine who can send e-mail across them.

• MAPS founder Paul Vixie demands that e-mail list builders adhere to a practice he calls verified opt-in, where after subscribing to a list, the subscriber must respond to a verification e-mail from the list builder to stay on it. Vixie contends that the next less strict standard, confirmed opt-in, is too low. The reason: Under confirmed opt-in, the subscriber who opts in (or who has been opted in) must respond to the verification e-mail to get off the list. As a result, it allows people to forge subscribe one another to e-mail lists and mail bomb one another.

Meanwhile, included in my mail bomb were e-mails from something like 300 gay men looking for dates, certainly a less-effective prank in Manhattan (where iMarketing News' offices are) than its homophobic sender intended. This guy obviously comes from a part of the country where this prank would be considered a frightening insult rather than the childishness that it was.

It was a perfect cap to two weeks of sneering, condescending abuse with a few notable exceptions, several of which were published in this space last week.

The editorial -- which admittedly was better at eliciting angry responses than it was unassailable -- drew constant fire with common phrases such as "whining sociopath," indicating that either these folks think uncannily alike or the e-mails were a collaborative effort.

The most aptly addressed complaint came from Unit4@Sputum.com. It was difficult to take Mr. Sputum seriously.

All in all, there was a lesson for both sides.

Though I have never advocated spam, I was attacked as if I was spam king Sanford Wallace incarnate simply for saying -- albeit unkindly -- that I believe MAPS and its followers have gone over the top.

But as one of the more reasoned anti-spammers pointed out: "The well has been so thoroughly poisoned by the practitioners of advertising-by-theft-of-service that giving even the most superficial appearance of advocating expropriation of private property for the good of a few opportunists will generate startling, yea even appalling reactions."

Meanwhile, a letter from the marketing side (with a request to remain anonymous, as usual) illustrated further the mental gap between these camps. "Vixie treats forged subscriptions like they're a commonplace occurrence, something the DM industry needs to be told not to do quite so often. How do you even do it?

"And by the way, how do you send 'gentle e-mail probes to detect silent sufferers?' Sounds like some sort of a disease to me."

The letter writer was referring to Vixie's contention that e-mail lists built with opt-in methods less strict than verified can be populated with people who are afraid to opt out because spammers often see an opt-out e-mail as verification that the address is real and spam it even more. He recommended auditing those lists with "gentle e-mail probes to detect silent sufferers."

And therein lies the gulf. To a marketer, asking someone who has given permission already to opt in again is like a cataloger saying, "Are you sure? Are you sure?" before each mailing-an absurd proposition once one understands the importance of marketer-initiated contact and unplanned purchasing.

Meanwhile, anti-spammers have such a war on their hands and have been burned by spammers so many times that an understandable, but nonetheless vicious, guilty-until-proven-innocent culture has evolved.

It is admirable that the various factions have been meeting to resolve their differences (iMarketing News, Aug. 21). It is also apparent from this editor's e-mail box that if they can pull off a mutually agreeable compromise, it will be a truly commendable feat.

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