Anti-Spammer Exhibits in the Belly of the Beast

SAN FRANCISCO — Six months ago, Anne Mitchell was in-house legal counsel for blacklist maintainer Mail Abuse Prevention System, likely direct marketers' most despised anti-spam group. This week, Mitchell is exhibiting at the Direct Marketing Association show as president/CEO of recently launched Habeas Inc.

Moreover, her company announced a deal yesterday with polling firm Harris Interactive, a company that was once embroiled in a lawsuit with MAPS.

“Having the public know that they're [Harris' e-mail lists] confirmed opt in is very important to them,” Mitchell said.

Confirmed opt in is the practice where an e-mail list owner sends a confirmation e-mail to new registrants. To stay on the list, the new registrant must respond to the confirmation e-mail saying that he did sign up for whatever the list owner offers. Anti-spammers contend that confirmed opt in is the only foolproof system for building a spam-free list because it prevents people from being signed up for things without their knowledge.

The Harris/Habeas development and Habeas exhibiting at the DMA show are symbols of how direct marketers and anti-spammers apparently have begun to realize that their purposes are not as at odds as they once seemed to be.

Mitchell said, for example, that she expected direct marketers to be “reserved” in their reactions to Habeas' business model. But they have been surprisingly receptive, she said.

“People have been so responsive,” she said. “They are really worried about the perception of the e-mail they're sending as spam.”

Indeed, direct marketers are so worried about their e-mail being perceived as spam and, as a result, not getting delivered, the DMA this week announced that it supports spam legislation. This is a big step for the DMA, as it tends to call for industry self-regulation on such issues.

“The need to stop the growth of spam from cluttering consumers' mailboxes must be a priority if we are to preserve the promise of e-mail as the next great marketing channel,” H. Robert Wientzen, president/CEO of the DMA, said in a statement. “Without a solution that includes legislation, legitimate marketers who use e-mail to communicate with consumers will continue to suffer at the hands of spammers.”

This statement is from the head of an organization that took four years to come out against e-mail address harvesting, or the spam tactic of scooping e-mail addresses off Web sites. But while the DMA said it supports legislation, it offered no details of what such legislation might include.

The development does, however, reflect direct marketers' growing concern about their e-mail being delivered. As ISPs work to filter spam from their incoming mail, so-called legitimate marketing e-mail is getting filtered out as well. Also, consumers swamped by spam are deleting marketing e-mail by the truckload these days, causing response rates to plummet.

“It's really heartening to see the DMA take spam so seriously,” Mitchell said. “Because without question, it [spam] is negatively impacting their members who are sending legitimate e-mail.”

Along those lines, Habeas Inc., Palo Alto, CA, employs a twist on trusted-sender and white-list anti-spam solutions — those where e-mail from known and trusted sources gets automatically accepted. Habeas copyrighted a small poem that licensees can add to their headers, the top portion of their outgoing e-mail that identifies the sender.

Under Habeas' business model, mail administrators can configure their systems so they check all incoming e-mail for Habeas' header and automatically accept mail that contains it, lightening the load on their main servers.

One of the many tricks spammers use to get their mail past administrators is to forge headers so their e-mail looks like it comes from someone else. Under Habeas' plan, spammers who forge its header can be prosecuted under trademark and copyright law. According to Habeas, it can seek penalties of $1 million or more, shut down offenders through injunctions and refer them for criminal prosecution in severe cases.

Meanwhile, direct marketers aren't the only ones who have changed their tone when it comes to e-mail marketing. Lately, there seems to be less my-way-or-the-highway rhetoric from the anti-spam camp as well. When asked about the seemingly less combative tone from anti-spammers, Mitchell said, “I think that more reasonable, moderate people are coming to the fore now. The rabid fringe is still there, but they're not as evident.”

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