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DMA Vacillates, So Internet Groups Define Spam

Stepping into the void created by the Direct Marketing Association's refusal to define spam, three interactive associations joined forces yesterday to call it unsolicited commercial e-mail.

The definition is the centerpiece of an e-mail marketing pledge endorsed by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Network Advertising Initiative's E-mail Service Provider Coalition and privacy group TRUSTe.

The pledge defines spam as “commercial e-mail sent without an existing business relationship or prior informed consent.” Informed consent is defined as any of three forms of opt-in: single opt-in, confirmed opt-in and double opt-in.

The pledge comes, in part, as a riposte to the DMA's contention that spam is e-mail sent by fraudulent means. On a number of occasions, the DMA has declined to define spam as unsolicited commercial e-mail, arguing that, for consumers, spam is in the eye of the beholder.

“We wanted to really make a definitive statement [of] what spam is, and then to say in no uncertain terms that unsolicited commercial e-mail must not be sent,” said Trevor Hughes, executive director of the ESPC. “We wanted to draw that very bright line” between spammers and legitimate e-mailers.

Michael Mayor, chief executive of e-mail list provider NetCreations and head of the IAB's e-mail committee, said the recently signed anti-spam law in California served as a warning that the e-mail marketing industry needed to be more aggressive in separating itself from unethical practices.

The law, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, bans commercial e-mail sent to or from a California e-mail address unless the advertiser as well as the sender have direct consent or a pre-existing business relationship with the recipient.

“Nobody else has stepped up to the plate to say what unsolicited e-mail is,” Mayor said. “We've left it to legislators to come up with a definition, and with what we've seen with California, they've come up with the wrong one.”

Hughes said the pledge would work in tandem with best practices issued by the DMA's subsidiary, the Association for Interactive Marketing, as well as the e-mail marketing guidelines the DMA jointly released with two major advertising trade groups Oct. 14.

Originally, interactive marketers defined spam through AIM's best practices. However, the definition was deleted by the DMA in July on the grounds that it was not germane to a document about delivery techniques. The subsequent uproar by e-mail marketers led to the decision to construct the pledge, according to participants.

“We build upon the work that has already been done,” Hughes said. “The interactive industry may be able to be more aggressive in defining best practices in this space.”

The Internet groups' four-point pledge begins with the blunt statement, “Unsolicited commercial e-mail must not be sent.” It also addresses fraud, requiring valid unsubscribe links and truthful subject and from lines. The pledge ends with a prohibition against gathering e-mail addresses through deceptive means, such as scraping and harvesting.

Though the pledge's tone is more forceful than the DMA's, using “must” instead of “should,” compliance is mandatory for some, optional for others. The ESPC's 37 members, for example, are required to adhere to the pledge. However, the IAB, as a trade association, will not require compliance from its more than 150 members, said Greg Stuart, the group's head.

Likewise, compliance with the pledge by TRUSTe's more than 1,000 seal holders is not mandatory. TRUSTe awards its “trustmark” to Web sites that agree to a set of privacy principles.

“We're looking at clarifying some of our requirements and strengthening some of our requirements,” said Fran Maier, TRUSTe's executive director and president.

TRUSTe agreed Oct. 13 to certify Ironport's bonded sender program, in which commercial e-mailers put up a financial bond and agree to be debited for any violations of ethical e-mail guidelines. In return, commercial e-mailers are assured safe passage through filters.

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