How to Stop Guerrillas at the E-Gate

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It's so nice that firms such as Yahoo and AOL are always thinking about consumers and how they can help them. Yahoo even has Seth Godin, Mr. Permission-based (and I mean it), as one of its vice presidents. AOL wanted to protect all of its subscribers by proposing legislation that required a "prior existing relationship" to exist before an e-mail could be sent to them.

That legislation would have closed down the future for every list owner, list manager or list broker that thought the collecting and goodwill of their e-mail efforts - even absolutely, correctly obtained opt-in versions were theirs to market. Only AOL or an AOL clone would have had a prior existing relationship (since AOL has the lion's share of the market, they would have called all the shots or tariffs).

Now Yahoo has announced Spamguard - of course, spam is defined by Yahoo, not the individual. Reportedly this system, to "protect the consumer," detects large (define that term) quantities of unsolicited mail to a "bulk mail folder." How does Yahoo (or Big Brother) know whether the message is unsolicited? Unless unsolicited means that Yahoo didn't do it, I can't figure out how they have the right to do this.

In this unregulated environment the biggest guerrillas have their way.

The truth is that as long as there is a profit motive and profit for the big guerrilla, then e-mail is fine. If anyone else benefits, such as a legitimate list owner, list broker, list manager, or the consumer who may actually enjoy receiving communication (freedom of information) in an open society, then there may be a problem.

This problem is cloaked in some nice wrapping and is taken care of by one of the Internet oligarchy that looks out for all the rest of us. Yahoo's Spamguard is yet another example of this sort of gimmick.

The direct marketing community has to wake up to the methods that are being used. We can no longer cite surveys and statistics that show strong majorities supporting our efforts. That may come as a shock, but 73 percent of consumers who agree that they enjoy receiving e-mail is not the answer. The answer is in the 27 percent who don't want to receive anything, not even from Yahoo - which does send its own internal advertisements to subscribers.

In this country, the government and tradition protect the right of privacy, even if you are the minority opinion - and that's why all the 73 percent surveys are useless and allow the big guerrillas to play their games.

It's actually time for the government to step in. I realize that as "knee-jerk" business people we're supposed to be against all types of government intervention. But if we think about what's in our own self-interest, we may learn to change our opinion.

Let the government charge a fraction of a penny for an e-mail transmission. It should be the U.S. Postal Service: That's its traditional role and it needs the revenue. This also will help all direct marketers.

One of the key arguments from people has been that the postal service couldn't track the revenue stream. This is not so. The advent of electronic stamps, plus the log files from servers trailed to the various points of presence on the Internet or those wonderful consumer-minded organizations like AOL, would allow for a continual and legitimate stream of revenue.

The postal service would play the key role in what "acceptable use practices" are on the Internet. If we don't allow the government access, as I suggest, it will fall into the hands of a small, powerful group of Internet service providers. Then the privacy of consumers and the legitimate business rights of direct marketers will all be at risk.

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